Palm Springs is home to a higher-than-normal percentage of HIV-positive residents—and a new documentary tells the stories of some of these people living with HIV.
Desert Migration will be screened at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 5 at the Camelot Theatres by the Palm Springs International Film Society.
During the 80 minutes of Desert Migration, the various subjects share their morning routines, along with bits and pieces of their stories. One of the more interesting subjects is Doc, a tattooed, pierced, muscular man who likes to do yoga in the nude, and who explains that he’s not a conventional gay man. Another subject, Will, is shown walking through his apartment and sitting in a chair reading a Bible. He explains that he’s overweight, that his penis size is inadequate, that he has poor posture, and that he is HIV positive—but it’s the sores on his back, a result of being HIV-positive, that keep him from having sexual encounters.
During a recent phone interview, director Daniel Cardone explained how the film came to be.
“I never really had a particular interest in documentaries,” Cardone said. “(I had) a general interest in film and different kinds of storytelling—so anything that would tell the story in the best way. It’s almost like the subject creates the form as to how the story is told. I thought my path was going to be in narrative filmmaking … .
“I worked with my producer, Marc Smolowitz, a couple of years prior doing a short documentary piece about living with HIV in San Francisco. I thought it might be possible to use that short piece in a longer-form feature, and that’s why I chose to do this film the way that I did it. There are no direct interviews where people talk directly into the camera, or any of those things you traditionally see in a documentary. That was me inspired by fictional narrative, but instead, I was inserting something as narrative while using a true subject. It was a hybrid between a narrative film and documentary. … I invented it as I went along, and that was the exciting part about it.”
Cardone said he’s seen the struggles that many of his friends endured due to being HIV-positive.
“Living in Palm Springs and in my own backyard, I realized that many of my friends were people who … lived through the plague years,” he said. “They lost all their friends, their whole social life, and their whole way of living was gone: They lost their jobs, houses and their health. Fortunately, everyone shown in the film managed to regain some ground to a certain degree. I was very much interested in the psychological ramifications of that.
“There have been a few films about HIV showing the terrible years and losing a lot of people in the Castro District, and How to Survive a Plague, which shows ACT UP trying to advocate to save people’s lives. I wanted to go beyond that and look at: Where are we now? And where are we now with the people who lived through all that? I wanted to dive into those aspects, especially the psychological aspect and the ongoing trauma, and how they live day after day after day, and what the medications they’re taking do their system. That was particularly important. No one really knows for sure what it’s doing to their systems.”
The issues with medications are addressed; many people don’t realize how damaging many HIV medications can be. Another topic: why some muscular HIV-positive men are maniacal about their upkeep.
“One thing about gay men is many of them are body-conscious. Another issue is when you’ve gone through HIV, and your body is wasting away,” Cordone said. “All these people you see in the film at the gym working out at some point were wasting away. They were alarmingly thin. There is one particular man in the film, Steve, who is mentioned going on steroid therapy, which promotes muscle mass and prevents his muscles from fading away. On top of that, it really does build up muscle tone—and that relates to a comment that was also made about HIV-positive men having the best bodies.”
Cardone said he wasn’t prepared for how the film changed his own perspective.
“On an intellectual level, I was sort of prepared for it, and I knew what was going to come up. You know what you’re going to find on an intellectual level,” he said. “But what surprises you is the emotional impact that it has on you. … Hearing their stories in emotional ways was really overwhelming at times. You’re sitting there re-living someone’s life with them, and they’re being completely honest and open. It’s made me a more open and emotional person and helped me put my own life into perspective—and to be grateful. Just getting into that emotional heart of the matter took me by surprise and was a really good thing about making the film.”
I wanted to hear more about some of these men’s stories—especially about a man named Ted, who mentioned he read And the Band Played On and remembered his encounter with “patient zero.” Cardone said it was hard to figure out what to use and what not to use.
“Everyone brought something to the table and was really unique in a way,” he said. “There’s a lot more to Ted … that unfortunately didn’t make it into the film. It’s where he’s been and the things he’s been through. The same with Will, the gentleman with the sores on his back, and how he feels as a result of having his skin break out like that. There’s so much there, and everyone had a complex story. The hard part was trying to fit it all into the film, because there were so many wonderful moments from everyone—joy and sadness, and everything in between. It was hard to find a balance to fit everything into the movie without shortchanging anyone, and I hope we were successful.”
The Desert AIDS Project is shown in the documentary providing health-care services to some of the subjects. Cardone said the DAP is truly unique, and no program like it exists anywhere else in the country.
“I think what they’re doing overall is extremely positive,” Cardone said. “There is nowhere else that offers what they do. No organization is perfect, but what they do for people, and how they have helped people to transform their lives, is truly magnificent. People couldn’t get access to that health care if they were living in other areas in America, and that’s sort of been the attraction for people to come to the desert. They do a lot of fundraising and raising awareness, and making sure that people with HIV who do live here don’t feel like pariahs and don’t feel like there’s no support. The dental, the checkups, the housing—there’s so many things they offer. The healthcare when you have HIV is a big deal.”
Desert Migration will be screened at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Camelot Theatres. 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $15; the proceeds will benefit the Palm Springs International Film Society and the Desert AIDS Project. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-6565, or visit www.psfilmfest.org. For more information on the film, visit www.facebook.com/DesertMigration.