INTERVIEW WITH: Lisa Biagiotti
Interview by Alexander C. Kafka
Lisa Biagiotti is the director of a deeply moving and beautiful new documentary called deepsouth, about the region’s continuing HIV epidemic. The film explores the poverty, hypocrisy, and stigma—particularly in the African-American community—that have helped keep the virus such a stubborn and successful foe.
Biagiotti weaves the film around Joshua Alexander, a thoughtful, charismatic, twenty-four-year-old, HIV-positive Mississippian; Kathie Hiers, an activist from Birmingham who spends one hundred and twenty days a year on the road advocating for more HIV funding for the South; and Monica Johnson and Tamela King, two Louisiana community organizers who coordinate an HIV support group and retreat.
Biagiotti doesn’t go for the glamor topics. One of her previous films was about the absence of adequate toilets in the developing world. And she doesn’t approach her work in a halfhearted way, either. For deepsouth, which Biagiotti largely funded herself, she’s made, over the last two years, “a dozen reporting trips to the South, driven thirteen thousand miles, interviewed four hundred people, and shot ninety hours of footage,” she said.
“I discovered that HIV in the South is really symptomatic of a fragile place with broken social infrastructure. We also cover some really sensitive topics in this film: molestation, rape, homophobia, poverty, slavery, race, religion, education, and rural America.”
I talked to Biagiotti recently about her film, her background, and her plans.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: Can you tell me about your background?
Lisa Biagiotti: I’m thirty-three years old and live in New York City. I grew up in a big, diverse, and crazy family. My mom is third-generation Jamaican of Hakka Chinese descent. My dad is Italian-American from the Bronx and West New York, New Jersey. I had a pretty normal life growing up in suburban New Jersey. My sister and brother (and most of my family) are teachers.
My path to journalism and filmmaking was not linear. In college, I majored in philosophy, modern history, and Italian literature. In 2001, I received a Fulbright grant to research Muslim migration patterns to Italy and Europe (in the immediate wake of 9/11). When I returned to New York in 2002, jobs were scarce. Because I spoke Italian, I worked for Condé Nast at Italian Vogue for a couple years, then swerved off-course and worked in marketing at a couple hedge funds. In 2007, I was more than mildly dissatisfied with the trajectory of my life, so I decided to go to journalism school. I’ve been working in various media, producing stories ever since.
The OA: Can you talk about your experience as a director and producer for Current TV and PBS?
LB: After I graduated from Columbia’s Journalism School, I worked on an international news show for WNET, New York’s PBS member station. I curated the web site and produced some TV segments on the humanitarian crisis in Congo and HIV and homophobia in the Caribbean. In 2010, the show was canceled, so I branched out independently and produced an hour on the sanitation crisis in Southeast Asia for Current TV.
The OA: You’ve chosen dark subjects: war rape, the toilet crisis, HIV. And you’ve funded much of this last project yourself. Did you make a conscious decision at some point to document tough subjects, in the manner of a journalistic/documentarian “calling”?
LB: I’m sure this is my subconscious at work directing me. I don’t make conscious decisions to report on suffering around the globe. In general, I’m attracted to topics and issues that surprise me, or are so tired and ordinary that we no longer talk about them in realistic ways. You probably can’t get more tired than HIV or more ordinary than toilets.
My family is Jamaican, so I feel I have some touch point on the culture. Admittedly, I was in disbelief when Jamaica was branded “the most homophobic place on earth.” I thought HIV/AIDS in the U.S. was “mission accomplished,” then I read a swarm of contrary stats and reports. And can you honestly believe that 2.6 billion people (forty percent of the world’s population) defecate out in the open?
People (and the mainstream media) want to talk about hate mongering, condom distribution, and clean water. I want to talk about why black men can’t be gay, about HIV as a symptom of broken social infrastructure, and about what’s so taboo about plain ol’ shit.
The statistics and data are mere starting points for me. I’m really interested in the…root causes—the fear; the way issues are being framed (or not framed); what people are not saying; and the complex, interlocking tangle of matters that simply cannot be reduced to good vs. bad, black vs. white, and right vs. wrong.
The OA: How do you see your career and what are your plans for future projects?
LB: I’m working on the sequel to deepsouth, which is about education in the rural American South. Deepsouth is more about the environmental risks of an infectious disease. The sequel will examine the issues surrounding a “second chance” school. It will challenge what education even is … community, connection, support, the future. I don’t have any IRAs left to liquidate, so [deepsouth director of photography] Duy Linh Tu and I are seeking funding so we can tell this story.
The OA: And how did you become invested (in every sense!) in deep documentary work?
LB: I consider myself a journalist. Film is a storytelling tool/medium. I’d like to think I have high aesthetic standards and that I don’t aspire to produce boring and banal work. Visual information is great at documenting complex stories. I have no desire to report on reports. I prefer my stats bullet-pointed and my experts pre-interviewed. I’m so grateful that there are statisticians and researchers, but I want to synthesize all that data, combine it with what I experience in the field, and, ultimately, tell the stories from which the data has been extracted. I’m far too interested in how people live and connecting things that are not readily linked.
As an unknown filmmaker and journalist, few people give you a chance. I have a stack of grant-application rejection letters to prove it! MAC Cosmetics/MAC AIDS Fund gave me an incredible opportunity to create the story I witnessed and envisioned. (Thank you, Lady Gaga, for selling millions of Viva Glam lipsticks!) I had the luxury of time and absolute creative control…and this may never happen again! Honestly, it was really easy for me to put a down payment on deepsouth.
The OA: I really liked John Chin’s musical score. And you and your crew took a very beautiful, aesthetic approach to many of the scenes, intertwined with the more traditional gritty verité footage. Was that a conscious decision going into the production or did that texture emerge as you worked?
LB: The visual aesthetic of the film is the genius of Duy. I gave Duy the parameters of what I didn’t want—I didn’t want perfectly-lit, shallow depth-of-field interviews; I didn’t want to glamorize, romanticize, or pigeonhole the South; and I didn’t want ad nauseum cinema-verité.
The South happens to be really beautiful—tragically beautiful at times. Southern culture is so rich and complex, and Southerners speak in really visual ways. This all needed to be part of the overall aesthetic. We made so many trips to the South, so we have footage in every season, daylight hour, and weather pattern.
Admittedly, the style of the documentary is a bit unconventional. It’s a social-issues documentary without expert interviews, statistically driven plot points, and explicit calls to action. It’s a personal-stories narrative, but doesn’t dive into every crevice of our subjects’ lives. Actually, a lot is left unsaid. There is quietness to the film. Nothing really happens, but for seventy-two minutes, you inhabit worlds that many people have never before experienced.
We take a classic three-part narrative structure—an individual and his family, a small agency and its community, and a lone activist and the towering AIDS bureaucracy. We break up these stories with more contextual stories that cover religion, sexual education, and the vast geography of the South.
I asked Duy to visually show something invisible. I asked Joe to make inertia, isolation, and disjointedness flow. I asked composer John Chin to score music that was quiet and still and not too musically “Southern.” There were a lot of contradictions, but that’s the reality of the South. I wasn’t interested in reducing the South or falling into the trap of stereotypes.
The OA: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the taboo undercurrent of HIV in the South is similar to a taboo in your family about schizophrenia. Can you elaborate on that?
LB: At a time when HIV is all about the search for the cure, the improving cocktail of drugs, and prevention via condom distribution, I listened to an infectious-disease doctor in Mississippi tell me that HIV is a social illness. He had to worry about whether his patients had transportation, electricity, and a stable home environment to actually take the drugs. It’s the same virus, but HIV is a different disease in the South, therefore the lessons of the last thirty years and successes in urban areas cannot be replicated in a place where culture and society are so different. It might be better to look at the best practices in the developing world because some of the challenges are the same.
For me, HIV is symbolic of something shameful, stigmatized, and secret. I compare HIV with my family’s bout with schizophrenia. It’s tough to come to terms with it, to actually see it, to deal with it. So we don’t talk about it. We close our eyes and pray it’s not so. We wish on shooting stars that it will change. It won’t, it can’t. It is.
It’s slightly comical that my daily Google alert for “stigma” routinely links to stories about HIV and mental illness.
The OA: It seems you really won the trust of your subjects here, especially Josh and Kathie. How did you meet them and how did your relationship with them develop?
LB: I spent a lot of time with each of the subjects before we started filming them. We had to convince Josh to share his story on camera, so we cut [the short film] Secrets and showed him. Because I hung out with Josh and really got to know him, I knew what scenes in his life would best tell his story. We’d drive around the Delta and pull off at abandoned juke joints, broken down buses, etc. Josh had this almost obsession with reading tombstones. He was so interested in imagining people’s lives.
I remember this time when we were the only two humans in this epic cornfield looking at more gravestones. Running and skipping down this dirt road, I felt compelled to just scream because there was no one around for miles. And Josh couldn’t bring himself to scream. He…just held all this stuff in. Whatever it was, it was so buried, suppressed, hidden, even from himself. Moments like these were really telling.
I attended Monica and Tammy’s HIV retreat the year before we filmed it. I noticed it was less about HIV and more about self-worth and sharing your story. I filled out worksheets on gratitude and goals, and kept thinking how helpful it was to pause and think about my life. And this had so little to do with a virus called HIV.
For me, one of the ending scenes where the retreat participants are discussing meds is so telling because it took that entire retreat to get them to the point of being open and trusting.
Lucky for me, Kathie had never been filmed before in all her decades of advocacy. Every time I met or spoke with Kathie, she was in a different place. It was really her backstory that became her story. So all those hotel check-ins, unpacking, repacking, practicing speeches made up her story. She says the same thing almost everywhere she goes. So we flipped the content with her context.
I was honest with each of the subjects about what I was seeing, how we were framing things, what we’d be shooting. After they agreed to be filmed, we scheduled five-day shoots with each of them, and we let reality play out.
The OA: What were your experiences of/with the South before wading into this project? And did making the film confirm or alter notions you had about the South?
LB: You never know what lies beneath the surface, or what people are going through in their lives. I learned more from what people didn’t say than what they did say.
I had no real preconceived notions about the South—prior to this. I had never been to the rural South. The more time I spent there, the more I was reminded of my Jamaican family—warm, loving, secretive, and judgmental. (Not necessarily in that order.)
I’ve interviewed more than four hundred people during the last two years in order to really understand the issues. The South is really a vast, disconnected place, and yet I found people from eastern North Carolina to northern Louisiana telling me the same things.
There are a lot of data and reports on the HIV epidemic in the South. You cannot deny the numbers, but they didn’t seem to explain what I was seeing in the thousands and thousands of miles I was driving. You couldn’t actually extrapolate from these clustering data points that HIV was an indicator or symptom of something bigger than a virus. You couldn’t actually challenge how we define words like prevention and behavior.
And we hope that’s what this film does. But it really doesn’t say anything or make you feel anything specific. It really depends on where you’re at in your life. It’s layered and complex and only strives to chronicle what the experience of being affected by HIV is like in a place with few resources and not many viable solutions.
Like its land, the South can be a harsh and inhospitable place. As an outsider, you’re not readily trusted (nor should you be). But when you keep showing up and Southerners trust that you’re not using them in some Petri-dish experiment, they embrace you wholeheartedly. Then there’s no turning back.