‘Deepsouth’ documentary explores how to combat HIV epidemic in Mississippi

Posted on Nov 30 2017 - 8:00am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

To raise HIV awareness and honor World AIDS Day, the Oxford Film Festival and the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies will host a free screening of the documentary “deepsouth” at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Powerhouse.

Released in 2012, “deepsouth” explores the neglected HIV/AIDS crisis in the rural American South through the lens of a college student living in the Mississippi Delta and two HIV activists who, despite challenges with resources and bureaucracy, devote their lives to preventing the spread of AIDS and helping those already infected to live a healthy life.

“As one of the top lethal diseases in both America and worldwide, it is critical to better understand and instill change in how the world views and combats this disease,” said Melanie Addington, executive director of Oxford Film Festival. “As a non-profit who seeks to cover all areas of film, this was absolutely an opportunity to actively play a role.”

Addington said she is excited to partner with several organizations to provide the screening for free. The Sarah Isom Center, UM Health Promotion, Out Oxford and the UM student group Queer People of Color came together to sponsor the screening.

Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, which founded and runs the Oxford Film Festival, is housed in the Powerhouse, where the screening is. Council director Wayne Andrews said films like this, especially ones produced in the state, help connect people through common experiences.

“This film provides an opportunity through a documentary to understand the challenges facing neighbors and observe from their point of view,” Andrews said.

Theresa Starkey, associate director of the Sarah Isom Center, said HIV greatly affects Mississippi, particularly the Delta and Jackson areas.

This summer, The New York Times published a magazine article titled “America’s Hidden H.I.V. Epidemic,” which focused on the Jackson area and cited statistics from various university studies. The article said Jackson has the nation’s highest rate — 40 percent — of gay and bisexual men living with HIV.

According to a 2014 Duke University study, Southern states hold 37 percent of the country’s population but accounted for 54 percent of all new HIV diagnoses. The analysis also stated that 2,952 people in the Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) died with HIV as an underlying cause, with the highest death rates in Mississippi and Louisiana.

A 2012/13 Emory University study found the South is home to 21 of the 25 metropolitan areas with the highest HIV prevalence among gay and bisexual men.

“deepsouth” aims to redefine traditional Southern values in order to create plausible solutions to surviving HIV despite the alarming statistics.

“‘deepsouth’ attempts to break the silence that surrounds the disease and its stigma in places like the South, where conversations around sex, sexuality, gender and sex education are often very difficult and highly contested,” Starkey said.

After the screening, two of the film’s protagonists — Monica Johnson and Kathie Hiers — will be available for a Q&A session.

Monica Johnson founded HEROES, which stands for “Helping Everyone Receive Ongoing and Effective Support,” in 1995 and focuses on improving the physical, economic and social health of those impacted by HIV and AIDS in rural Louisiana.

Ten years before founding HEROES, Johnson discovered that the person whose blood was given to her during a hospital visit had died of AIDS. Her son was born HIV-positive and died before reaching the age of 4.

Kathie Hiers is the chief executive officer of “AIDS Alabama,” which, for 30 years, has been working on housing, policy and advocacy, supportive services, HIV prevention and education and free and confidential HIV testing.

Starkey, Isom Center director, said she encourages students to attend the screening in order to learn about important health issues affecting their region.

“The film encourages important community dialogue on issues related to gender and sexuality and shows how individuals can become important catalysts in their communities and advocates for social change, especially when it comes to raising awareness about HIV and helping communities who need resources,” Starkey said.

Logan Williamson contributed to the reporting for this article.