Saved by the introduction of protease inhibitors in the mid-1990s, many HIV positive men needed to rebuild lives they thought they would not live. In an effort to make peace with the virus inside them, some migrated to California's Palm Springs in the hope of finding a healing desert oasis. But is this environment, with its tolerant population and constant sunshine, enough to heal their shattered bodies and dispel their lingering grief?
More than half the people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States are over 50 years of age. Those people, whose lives were saved by antiretroviral therapies, are dealing with a barrage of new problems as their ageing bodies struggle to maintain the upper hand against the virus, accompanied by the many side effects of the treatment itself - insomnia, depression, neuropathy, bone degeneration, kidney failure, cognitive disorders, suicidal ideation... Many also struggle with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, having lived through a period of decimation and debilitation that remains largely unacknowledged.
Desert Migration focuses on gay men living long-term with HIV who sought out an oasis in Southern California's Palm Springs where both their homosexuality and health condition is not just tolerated, but understood. They represent a huge number of people who migrated to this desert community burdened with memories of watching their friends die, all believing that a similar fate would befall them.
Over the course of a single on-screen ‘day’, we observe a group of men as they work, eat, sleep, love, recuperate and grieve. By sharing their stories, Desert Migration reflects on subjects that relate to all of us; HIV positive or negative, young or old. How do we approach our own aging, and the notion of mortality? What gives us will to create, to achieve, and even to live at all, as our bodies and minds deteriorate?
The environment in Palm Springs is highlighted as something unique in the United States, and perhaps the world, in terms of offering acceptance and a level of care that is unparalleled in a town of its size. However, even in this this ‘safe haven’, no one arrives without bringing with them some burden of the past.
The daily ritual for every one of these men begins with taking their medications. - a constant reminder of their status. The rest of their day varies - some still work, others are on long-term disability and struggle with filling their day in a meaningful way. Their routine is presented so that both the magical and the mundane are highlighted – even the most rudimentary of chores can be a tool to help an individual find focus.
The harsh and unforgiving desert landscape around the town is a consistent visual presence, reminding us of the constant maintenance it takes to keep Palm Springs green and vibrant, much like the effort it takes to keep the virus at bay. As the activities of the subjects are observed, their voice-overs suggest the weight of the past and the worries and thoughts of the present and the future that they carry with them.
Occasionally the men cross paths; their lives crisscrossing like threads in a tapestry. This community might be small in size, but the diversity of people is endless and sometimes the gulf between them can be enormous. The people who are the happiest are those that manage to bridge that divide. The day ends with some people alone, others sharing dinner with friends or their partners, and still others mourning lost friends. Life, or whatever our version of it is, goes on…