Filmmaker Interview with Director Daniel F. Cardone
More than half the people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States are over 50 years of age. Those people, whose lives were saved by antiretroviral therapies, are dealing with a barrage of new problems as their aging bodies struggle to maintain the upper hand against the virus, accompanied by the many side effects of the treatment itself — insomnia, depression, neuropathy, bone degeneration, kidney failure, cognitive disorders, suicidal ideation. Many also struggle with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, having lived through a period of decimation and debilitation that remains largely unacknowledged.
Desert Migration focuses on gay men living long-term with HIV who sought out an oasis in Southern California’s Palm Springs where both their homosexuality and health condition is not just tolerated, but understood. They represent a huge number of people who migrated to this desert community burdened with memories of watching their friends die, all believing that a similar fate would befall them.
Saved by the introduction of protease inhibitors in the mid-1990s, many HIV positive men needed to rebuild lives they thought they would not live. In an effort to make peace with the virus inside them, some migrated to California’s Palm Springs in the hope of finding a healing desert oasis. (DesertMigrationMovie.com)
What motivated you to make this film?
I found myself living in Palm Springs, and meeting a lot of men who were living long term with HIV/AIDS. ALL of these men had been told — at one point — that they were going to die, and yet here there were, decades later, still alive. I was interested in the psychology of believing in your imminent demise, and making plans for that, only to have your life basically given back to you. But it’s not the same life you had. No, this one is broken — you don’t have your friends, you don’t have your job, you might not have your home and you barely have your health. How does a person proceed from that point? The fact that so many of these people ended up in Palm Springs provided a logical framework for an examination of this group of men, highlighting not just what it’s like to live long term with HIV, but also just to grow old as a gay person.
What obstacles–if any–did you encounter while making DESERT MIGRATION?
Funding! The actual filming was relatively easy. A borderline experimental documentary about men over 50 living with HIV in the desert didn’t really have people lining up to back the project. As such, we had a very protracted filming process. However, this turned out to be beneficial as it allowed me lots of time to view footage and think about what was missing and what we still needed to capture.
What opportunities are available for viewers interested in getting further involved?
HIV is still very much with us, and there are hundreds of organizations across the US, and many more across the world, set up to help those living with HIV, and to help educate communities against spreading the virus, and stopping stigma against those living with the virus. On a personal level, educate yourself as much as you can about HIV and AIDS — we need articulate, informed advocates to help fight stigma!
One film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?
What did you shoot on?
We used a selection of cameras on the film — in order of importance, they were Canon c300, Canon 5D, Sony fs700 and Gopro hero 3.
What’s a lesson learned or personal takeaway from the making of this film?
It was getting rid of expectations, of worries about outcomes and just enjoying the process for what it was. It was about letting go of control and liking it.
What were a few stylistic choices or techniques that you used to help tell your story?
My motto was ‘landscapes and faces’. We shot in a wide screen format to capture the majesty of the desert, but then the intention was to contrast that with close-ups of the faces of the men in the story, creating vistas of sand, rock and flesh. The film was also almost entirely composed as if it was a narrative feature. I knew we were filming ordinary, everyday events and tasks, so I wanted to give them a sense of importance, or grandeur beyond their ordinariness.
Did your story evolve from day one to the very last day in post–is it what you thought it would be?
Interestingly, the film is exactly the film I wanted to make, without being at all like the film I thought I was going to make. That sounds obtuse, but I wanted to make something meditative and immersive, that objectively viewed the stories of these men, while allowing the viewer to reflect on what was occurring on screen during and well after viewing the film. The final product more than embodies that. There was a period while editing where I wavered, making the film more informational, but then we altered it to return to it being a more emotionally reflective experience.
One rewarding experience for you from the making of DESERT MIGRATION–
Just getting to know the subjects and hearing everyone’s journey was immensely rewarding for me. Every single person I interviewed found the experience cathartic. No one had ever given them the chance to just talk before, without judgement. So to be able to be the recipient of all that knowledge and experience was amazing.
Favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?
Editing and sound mix. Prepping and shooting is fun but exhausting, so in post you really get the chance to see what you captured and see how it all fits together. That sense of discovery you feel when putting together all the elements and trying to find how everything ‘clicks’ is unbeatable.
What’s the one item you always take with you in the field and why?
Chewing gum, a notebook and about twenty pens. Chewing gum because it helps my anxiety to chew constantly, and a notebook because I like to be able to capture ideas and sketch concepts for people. Twenty pens because I keep losing them.
What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And apart from technical skill, the only thing you really need is objectivity and compassion, in equal and immense amounts.
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Written by Erinn Sullivan, SIMA