“deepsouth”: Journalism Professor and Alumna Collaborate on AIDS Documentary

Duy Linh Tu, an assistant professor at Columbia Journalism School, has been teaching students digital storytelling techniques since 2002. So he was encouraging when a former student told him she wanted to make a documentary about the impact of HIV in the Deep South—and intrigued when she suggested he work on it with her.

He was initially hesitant. In addition to directing the school’s digital media program, where he teaches students and runs continuing education programs for professional journalists, Tu (JRN’99) is a writer and photographer, and as a videographer has shot for all the major broadcast networks. He gave Lisa Biagiotti (JRN’08) a non-committal answer: “Let me know when you get the funding.”

A few weeks later Biagiotti sent him an email with a picture of a $50,000 check from the MAC AIDS Fund. “She said, ‘Now you have to do it with me,’” said Tu. “It’s very natural in this field to go from mentor-mentee to collaborative partners; it happens all the time.”

Signing on as the film’s director of photography and a producer, Tu spent the next 18 months working with Biagiotti on deepsouth, a 72 minute-long documentary that looks at HIV in the American South. “I generally thought that HIV/AIDS was a problem solved, at least in the U.S.,” said Biagiotti, who directed and produced the film. The numbers she found suggested otherwise. The Southeastern U.S. has the highest rate of new HIV infections compared to other regions of the U.S., according to 2009 data from the Centers for Disease Control; seven of the 10 states with the highest rates of diagnosis of HIV infection are in the South.

It has been roughly 30 years since the virus that causes AIDS was first discovered, and the filmmakers knew that plenty of documentaries would focus on medical experts and statistics. Biagiotti and Tu decided to focus on individuals who, one way or another, struggle with the disease: Josh, an isolated, young, HIV-positive man in Mississippi; Tammy and Monica, who run an annual retreat in Louisiana for people with HIV; and Kathie, a peripatetic Alabama activist who works to secure more resources to prevent and treat HIV.

“It's my hope that people come away from deepsouth with the understanding that the disease is experienced by real people—not statistics,” Biagiotti said.

As the film’s director of photography, Tu had several goals for its visual aesthetic. “We needed to put the viewer in the rural South, the feel had to convey ‘hot’ and ‘sticky,’” he said. Everything was filmed in natural light, which gave the subjects authenticity, and he used environmental shots like fields and abandoned playgrounds to add the scenery as another character. “Documentaries can have a cinematic quality,” says Tu. “Journalism can tell an important story and be beautiful at the same time.”

Tu made sure that each storyline had its own distinct look. “Josh is filmed almost entirely alone to communicate his isolation,” Tu said. “Tammy and Monica, who are trying to build a makeshift community of people with HIV, are filmed in group settings. The feel with Kathie is constant motion—in cars, walking to conferences, unpacking her suitcase.”

Before deepsouth, Tu had never done a health-related story, but he is now working on a short documentary about a camp for children with xeroderma pigmentosum, a genetic disorder that causes extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet light and an increased risk of skin cancer. The camp runs for one week each summer and all its activities take place at night. “I’m interested in doing important stories about marginal communities with really deep problems,” says Tu.

The first screening of deepsouth will be on July 24 at the International Aids Conference in Washington D.C. Tu hopes the film will catch someone’s eye, especially those with political and financial influence. “There is no massive effort supported by money and celebrity to address HIV in the South,” says Tu. “There’s no Bono, no Elton John, no David Geffen.” Columbia University will screen deepsouth in the fall.

Mostly, though, Tu would be content if people similar to the subjects of the film see it and appreciate it. “We want it to play where we shot it,” he says. “I want a kid like Josh to see this film and see that he is not alone.”

—by Eric Sharfstein

July 18, 2012