What does it mean to age? What does health look like? What does chronic illness look like? How do we face mortality without succumbing to depression? How can we create meaning and beauty in our lives, even and especially when the deck is stacked against us? When things are at their bleakest, how can you get through even the end of this day?
These are among the questions raised by Dir. Daniel Cardone's film Desert Migration. The film follows the stories of about a dozen HIV+ men in their 50s and 60s who are currently living in Palm Springs, California.
“You are empowered with making the most out of your own life,” Cardone said in an interview. “No matter what circumstances you've been through, the responsibility at the end of the day is with you and you make a choice. Things may be shitty, but are you going to face this with positivity and strength and work through it or are you going to succumb to things and to whatever elements are fighting against you?”
Desert Migration is different from your typical American documentary film by design. It follows a sort of day-in-the-life of these men, watching them as they eat breakfast, brush their teeth, take medication, smoke a cigarette, go to the gym, do yoga, paint, have dinner with friends, or go out drinking and dancing at a bar.
“The way it was going to be was very set from the outset,” Cardone explained. “I made a very strong stylistic decision early on that I was not going to have any talking heads interviews. It was all going to be voiceovers.” When conceptualizing the film, Cardone decided to attempt to combine a European film style with that of visual, sensory films and apply the result to an issue-based documentary. “It was an experiment to see whether that was possible,” Cardone continued. “That was never really going to lend itself to building up to a climax or something like that. It was always going to be a more stream-of-consciousness meditation.”
“That can be really challenging for some people, he admitted. “Or some people really go with it and that's fine by me. I like the fact that it does really steep you in an environment and a state of mind.”
Cardone got the idea for the film while living in Palm Springs and commuting to LA to work as a producer's assistant and scriptwriter. “I was talking to my husband,” he remembered, “who said, 'There are all these people in our community who are our friends. They are going through a lot living long-term with HIV. What brought them to the desert? How do you go on living after you've been told you're basically going die?'”
“There was no precedent for living,” Cardone continued. “I was really intrigued by that idea. How do you get over that? Even when you know you're not going to die – not going to die immediately – how do you then continue to live with all this horror and trauma and create a life that has some sort of meaning for you?”
And indeed the film doesn't actually answer that question. Or rather, it answers the question by illustrating that there is no one way to create meaning and purpose in our lives. For each man in the film who articulates one point of view about a topic or theme, there is another expressing the exact opposite opinion. Yet all are able to coexist within the film, creating a tapestry of possibilities and paths, none more or less right than another.
The film provides a window into the lives of these men, and the voiceover format makes it feel like a conversation. It is a beautiful portrait of a population not often viewed, discussed, or even given voice within the LGBTQ+ community. “How do you deal with the fact that you lived in a war zone where people were literally dropping dead all around you and nobody even acknowledged the fact that it went on?” said one man in the film. “And nobody to this day acknowledges that we went through a holocaust. We have created no mechanism for dealing with it. We just put it behind us and pretend like it doesn't exist.”
“I really wanted to show I guess a kaleidoscope of experience that is represented,” Cardone said. “There is no way in the world [the film] can possibly speak to everyone's experience. It was more a cross-section of who is here in Palm Springs, and also hopefully there is enough in there that everyone watching it will find something they can pull from.” He continued, “And not just HIV+ people. I really wanted to look at that idea of getting old as a gay man specifically – or just getting old but being gay as well. I think the experience of women is quite different from the male experience. Trying to set up a society especially when a lot of your elders or people you might look up to for guidance are dead.”
Even though the film focuses on the experiences of HIV+ gay men, I would say that the vast majority of the LGBTQ+ community has faced trauma of one kind or another, and has had to search for a reason to keep going in the face of persecution and discrimination. In that way, the film is totally relatable even to those who have no direct experience with HIV/AIDS. Although strides have been made in the last 30 years to be sure, the battle for equality is far from over. Queer people don't often have a firm sense of our community's history, and Desert Migration will provide future generations of queer people with role models to look up to as we shape our lives, even if the men in the film itself had none. It is a testament to all minority populations: showing how to find ways to survive in a society which wasn't made for you, and which would often rather pretend you didn't exist.
“Optimism is a good thing in our situation,” said one man in the film. “The ones that are really thriving are people who are either optimistic or mildly agnostic about it. There's meaning all over the place. You just have to go get it.”
“The closing words in this movie are all about facing the day and going, 'OK, this is my choice: what am I going to do to with this day?'” Cardone said. “It's OK if you want to stay in bed and pull the covers over your head and tell the world fuck you.” He continued, “But also know that the choice is yours to try to go beyond what you thought you were capable of. All of the people in this film go beyond what they thought they were capable of. All of them manage to still get up every day and try to improve their life. Or just get to the end of the day. Even that is a major accomplishment.”
“I would urge as many people to see it in a cinema as possible,” Cardone said. “It really was shot to be that widescreen, cinemascope, Technicolor feeling. That was definitely my inspiration – to make a sensory, meditative experience for a subject that has not been handled in that way before.”
“If you're going to come see the movie – and I hope you do – just relax and let it wash over you,” Cardone suggested. “Willingly immerse yourself in what is happening on the screen. It is designed to be that almost subconscious kind of experience. If you go in knowing that it will help you get into the mindset of the film. It's not that hardcore, newsy, talk facts, shock revelations kind of film. It's much gentler than that and I think it becomes transformative if you view it in that way.”
Desert Migration screens Saturday, September 12 at 2:15PM at the Alamo South Lamar. If you do not have an AGLIFF badge, individual tickets can be purchased here.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 09/08/2015.