Health & Medicine

Documentary sheds light on hidden HIV/AIDS epidemic in American south

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DP Duy Linh Tu and Joshua Alexander in a burned out house in the Mississippi Delta.

In the American south, statistics tell a story that its residents often do not.

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Though the region is home to 37 percent of the United States population, more than half of all new HIV diagnoses occur there. The number of persons living with AIDS has increased over the last fifteen years at a greater rate in the south than in any other regions of the United States.

Under the multiple layers of history and statistics, it's a topic that has remained largely hidden in the south. A new documentary called "deepsouth" tries to examine the discrepancy by visiting some of the quietest corners of the region.

Director Lisa Biagiotti spent almost three years, traveled 13,000 miles and conducted more than 400 interviews to create the film. The film documents a unique intersection ofvarious local and regional efforts to deal with a system with broken social infrastructure. 

The problem, as she sees and portrays it in her film, goes much deeper than HIV/AIDS, though.

"For me, going across the South, HIV was my GPS to the most fragile parts of our country," she said.

Hard-hit not only by poverty, but lack of education and access to healthcare, the film shows a culture that is dominated by secrecy and discrimination against HIV-positive individuals.

"When you can't talk about sex in classrooms, when the entire culture, in a sense, is quiet about HIV/AIDS, it's difficult. There's not a lot of education going on and there's a lot of secrecy in terms of this epidemic," Biagiotti said.

The epidemic has, and will continue to have, far-reaching consequences. Biagiotti recalled one small trailer park where 95 percent of the residents had a sexually transmitted disease.

"You're just surprised by that," she said.

The film goes beyond HIV/AIDS as a health problem and as a statistic, though, to look at the underlying social circumstances that explain its pervasiveness in the south.

"I think we told one story about HIV and AIDS and that was a great story. It's the urban story of white gay men who fought and kind of changed the epidemic," Biagiotti said. "We didn't tell the stories in the south or in the more minority communities and this is what it looks like when you don't necessarily have an activist movement like you did in San Francisco and New York."

Biagiotti has been touring with the film and showing it at various festivals after its premiere in Washington, D.C., at the International Conference on AIDS in July 2012. The next screenings are on July 12 and 15 at Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles.