Daniel F. Cardone’s Desert Migration, is a hypnotic docu-hybrid that tells the story of a generation of HIV-positive men who have been afforded new life through the introduction of AIDS combating drugs, but still struggle with a number of internal and external problems associated with the virus. Part of the HIV Story Project, Cardone’s documentary sits outside the traditional scope of not-for-profit associated film-making, taking upon the values of an art film in addition to its tackling of traditional documentary fare. It’s an impressive feature-length directorial debut, with its own unique style and aesthetic that, with the right distribution, is sure to combat some of the contemporary stigma attached to those who have contracted HIV.
Desert Migration focuses on a group of HIV-positive men who contracted the virus before there was effective treatment for AIDS, living life as though they had a death sentence until protease inhibitors emerged in the mid-90s, prolonging their lives of the film’s subjects far beyond their prior expectations. This posed a number of unique challenges to the group: while protease inhibitors gave them new life, they also forced these men – who had spent the previous few years living like they were going to die – to piece their lives back together. The group had by and large avoided any sort of long-term planning, and are thrust into a position where they actually may outlive the money they have left, yet are not strong enough to enter the workforce to replenish their funds. Many moved to Palm Springs, California as the healthcare was decent, the weather was pleasant, and housing was (at least, initially) affordable.1 This group of aging men are the focus of Cardone’s meditation on living with HIV in a post-protease inhibitor paradigm. Some have had medical benefits cut off because of healthy appearances in social media posts, lost their houses, and faced stigma from straight and queer communities alike – all hidden, unspoken impacts that the virus has had on a new generation of AIDS survivors. Cardone’s documentary is not a simple takedown of the public perception that AIDS is cured, however, he also makes headway destigmatising life with HIV/AIDS, looking at the hostile relationship they have with the HIV-negative queer community, the stark reality of living with AIDS related conditions, and the mens’ (often) active sex lives.
Although made under the banner of the HIV Story Project organisation, there’s a strange sense of vérité in his poetic construction that’s absent from most films made by not-for-profit institutions. While there is an obvious motivation behind the film, Cardone’s objective seems pure, looking to inform and expose unspoken tales to the world, rather than raise revenue. The film is beautifully shot in cinemascope, with Cardone demonstrating an extraordinary level of control over his camera; this is something that is overlooked far too often in contemporary documentary film making, where aesthetics all-too-often take a back seat to the delivery of information.2 Through the cinematography, Cardone perfectly encapsulates the relaxing, dream-like quality of the desert, reflecting the lived experience of a generation of men, shocked to still be alive today but still in a position where they have to be restrained and cautious about their health. The pacing isn’t perfect, but it’s damn close, an impressive feat for a film of this nature.
This is the post-inhibitor film that needs to exist; it’s a reminder that HIV has not been eradicated, and that living with HIV – while not the death sentence it once was – still poses its own set of problems. It’s time for this film to be made, and we’re safe in Cardone’s hands, never preaching, nor overreaching. While its clear that the AIDS epidemic is the unspoken, homophobic plague of the 20th century, the film serves as neither lecture nor an exploitation of its subjects for some sort of cathartic release. Cardone, instead, seeks to inform by crafting a meditation on the lived experience of a particular generation of AIDS survivor, showing the varied faces and lives of the protease inhibitor generation, combating the stigma attached to the disease and informing future generations of the long-term effects of suffering from HIV that aren’t all related to an individual’s health.
Overall, while not without its minor shortcomings, Desert Migration is an impressive and informative feature, a solid feature-length directorial debut from Cardone, and a vital piece of filmmaking. Cardone and, by proxy, the HIV Story Project, have demonstrated themselves as worthy competitors in the fight against HIV stigma, and additionally, Cardone has demonstrated some serious filmmaking chops. Hopefully Desert Migration sees some sort of wider distribution in the future, it wholly deserves it.