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Desert Migration: A Documentary about Life After AIDS - Q&A with Daniel F. Cardone, Writer & Director

April 2016 | Daniel F. Cardone

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The film shows that even people who have lost their careers, their homes, their friends and their health can still find meaning and a purpose. It’s ultimately a very optimistic film that encourages people to find the strength within them.

Tell us about the name Desert Migration. Where did this name come from?

Finding an appropriate name for the movie wasn’t easy.   The working title was Now What? This was meant to convey the state of mind and a certain sense of exhaustion on the part of people who had been living with HIV since the early years of the AIDS epidemic, had watched their friends die and expected the same fate to befall them too.  Ultimately they persevered, and were now wondering what life held in store for them.

The title we eventually chose, Desert Migration, is deliberately suggestive of an anthropological study, an examination of a movement, or subculture with its own rituals and behavioral patterns, to a location to commence a new phase of life.  There was and is a true migration of HIV positive people from all over the US to the Coachella Valley & Palm Springs.   In many respects, in the first period of the HIV crisis it was a forced migration.  People’s lives had been shattered, and they had to create a new existence out of the wreckage of their former selves.  Keith, one of the men in the film, describes it as an Exodus of the walking wounded.  “We couldn’t afford to manage this illness”, he says, “Coming out to the desert afforded a cheaper lifestyle, and there were services here” - health services established specifically for this growing community. 

Another participant in the film, Doc, highlights a level of visibility and acceptance that was also attractive.  “There were so many people here who openly claim their HIV status.  So, we set ourselves up as a distinct and defined community because we had been marginalized, and people have been prejudiced against us”.  

These people who initially came to the desert to live out their ‘remaining years’ discovered that those remaining years turned out to be a lot longer than they expected them to be, so then Palm Springs became a place where people came to live.  And that is where the story of Desert Migration begins, the story of ‘Life After AIDS’ (#LifeAfterAIDS)

What was your inspiration for Desert Migration?

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the first diagnosed cases of AIDS.  That’s thirty-five years of history I believe it is essential to preserve, so that future generations have a record of everything we’ve been through, and all that we’ve accomplished and overcome. 

Even though I have been living with HIV for more than 20 years, the difference between my experience and that of the men in the film couldn’t be greater.  After I moved to Palm Springs, I had talked at length with many people who were long term survivors – not just about what they had been through, but where they were now, and what their prospects for the future were.  I realized that their stories were conspicuously lacking from the public HIV conversation – there had been a lot of focus on the initial years of the epidemic, and on prevention of new infections, but nothing of those who had lived through the crisis.   Their lives had been saved by the introduction of protease inhibitors, but their new lives were utterly different, often quite compromised and fraught with complications.  They were the very first generation of people living long term with HIV, and dependent on very strong medications. 

Marc Smolowitz, the producer of the film, was excited by the idea as he was already aware of a growing zeitgeist across the nation and the world that was focusing on long-term survivors and aging with HIV, and together we realized we had the opportunity to create the very first comprehensive feature documentary dealing with this important subject.

As you made the film did you discover anything that surprised you about the long-term survivors living with HIV?

Discovering the common sense of resilience amongst the men was not so much a surprise, as much as it was a confirmation of what I had suspected.  Even though every person in the film has a different personal philosophy, all of them share a resilience and perseverance that has pushed them through their most difficult moments.  No one was going to give up.  Everyone was grateful to be alive and for each second they remained alive.  Also, the majority were optimistic about the future, and were at a place of peace internally. 

I was also struck by the similarity of the problems we all face as we grow old, whether we are HIV positive or negative.  The film reflects on many different issues that are part and parcel of aging, especially for LGBTQ people.  These issues include maintaining access to decent healthcare, economic security, mental health, isolation, housing, sex and dating.  Problems within these areas are often exacerbated as we age, and creating the film highlighted how universal these issues are for all of us.

What are you hoping the audience will learn from this film?

Even though the film focuses on a very specific group of men in a very specific place, I hope all audiences feel a sense of empowerment – the knowledge that as people we all have the ability to choose how we face our lives, even if we can’t change the circumstances of our lives.  The film shows that even people who have lost their careers, their homes, their friends and their health can still find meaning and a purpose.  It’s ultimately a very optimistic film that encourages people to find the strength within them.

The film was never meant to just be a self-contained piece.  It was always designed to get people thinking and stimulate larger conversations about the issues it touches on: Aging, isolation, access to healthcare, long-term care, substance abuse, mental health, and intimate relationships.  That’s why we are taking Desert Migration out into communities with our community outreach program - creating events where the film can be a springboard to launch conversations that are specific to locations and address the concerns of those aging with HIV in those areas.  We want the viewers to start talking about what is important to them – publicly sharing information and encouragement is a very important part of preventing isolation, reducing stigma, and building healthy communities.

Where can people learn more about Desert Migration?

For those interested in hosting a screening of Desert Migration in their community, they can contact us at desertmigrationmovie@gmail.com.  

We also recommend people ‘like’ our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/DesertMigration/), follow our Twitter (@desertmigration) or go to our website – www.desertmigrationmovie.com.  

A trailer for the film can be viewed here:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=1X0-AXQ-1Xo

© 2011-2017 Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint these articles, or post them online, please e-mail us.

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