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Desert Migration

The gay Ballad of Narayama? Gay Americans living with HIV move to the desert as they get older, where they calmly wait for their deaths, seek spiritual healing and community support

By 1995, six million people had died of HIV-related complications worldwide. At the time, Aids was still a fatal disease, and virtually a death certificate to the infected. Since then, new drugs have been developed, and living with HIV is now a completely different experience. These people have their bodies damaged and their lives profoundly stigmatised, but they no longer die straight away. The disease is now described as “chronic”, instead of the previous “fatal”

The impact of HIV on the lives of these people is enormous. As the virus mutates, so do their lives. Many stop working and go on disability benefit instead. Plus they migrate. These gay men are mostly in the fifties when they move to the idyllic Palm Springs, in the heart of the Californian desert. They are looking for a peaceful place to retire and die, however imminent or distant the end of their lives may be.

Desert Migration at times feels like a modern-version of the Japanese classic The Ballad of Narayama (Shōhei Imamura, 1983). In the movie, once a person reaches the age of 70 he or she must travel to a remote mountain and die; they climb the mountains in back of their children. In Desert Migration, it is a strange mixture of social anxieties, clinical depression and the search for a community feeling that transports them to the remote location where they too can die. Waiting for death is the central theme in both of the films.

One of the men in the film explains why he feels such sadness and despondency: “All relationships come to an end: dog, friends, lovers”. They has seen many of the their dearest friends perish to the virus throughout the decades, and ironically the only thing that has remained constant in their lives is the HIV and all the problems associated with it. Living in relative isolation from their past, they can now reflect, contemplate nature and find spiritual healing in the arid landscape.

The various subjects of the film have a different take on life. Most of them live mostly in isolation and are deeply pessimistic about their role in life and their future. One of them complains: “our society has no role models for gay men in their fifties”, and mentions Madonna instead as a reference. Another one says: “Age is the new Aids”. A more optimistic one remarks: “HIV brought me so much nurture from family and friends”. There is also a polyamorous man who is very comfortable in his own skin, delighted to embrace his unconventional lifestyle. The spectrum of human sentiments and self-confidence is very broad amongst these people.

The director captures very intimate moments, ranging to a post-coital emotional outflow (while still wearing a condom), to massage sessions and spicy confessions of the sex adventures. The film is supported by a painfully monotonous soundtrack – and perhaps precisely for that reason very effective at highlighting the lingering anguish in the lives of these people.

These older gay man live in a sanitised bubble, it seems. However sad some of them may be, their lives are still remarkably comfortable, particularly if compared to HIV-sufferers in other part of the planet such as Africa. Their challenges would sound probably very petit bourgeois to those who do not even have access to the exorbitantly expensive HIV medication elsewhere. The film, however, never makes investigates such contrasts. Despite opening with a worldwide figure (the six million deaths), its message is much less universal. It’s a film about a small group in relative isolation, and their story may not resonate with most people outside the bubble.

Desert Migration was shown last month as part of the Open City Documentary Film Festival in London. Find out more about upcoming screenings worldwide by clicking here.

And watch the movie trailer below:


By Victor Fraga - 13-07-2016

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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