AGLIFF review – ‘Desert Migration’

Produced in association with the HIV Story Project, Daniel Cardone’s “Desert Migration” chronicles the lives of about a dozen men who are aging with AIDS. Popular culture currently provides more visibility for LGBT lives than ever before, but rarely explores experiences that aren’t youth-oriented.

This documentary is an artfully constructed mediation, introducing us to a wide variety of men with one thing in common – they left behind their lives (mostly from Los Angeles and San Francisco) and descended on Palm Springs, California. After watching the majority of their friends, lovers and peers die during the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic (one man describes realizing he had slept with “Patient Zero” after reading Randy Shilts’ groundbreaking book “And The Band Played On” in 1987), these men are true survivors. Despite their early HIV diagnoses, there was a group who became known as “The Lazarus Men” who all survived long enough to be introduced to theantiretroviral therapy known as the “AIDS cocktail” around 1995.

“I don’t think very many people arrive in the desert without a story.” 

Why uproot everything and move to Palm Springs? As a man named Bill explains, “Palm Springs is my age. Los Angeles is 25.” Affordability was the biggest initial appeal along with the dry heat, which provided relief to their bodies, battered by harsh medications. The area was became a mecca for HIV-positive men in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, a place where they had support, medical services and could find a community. The area, long known for its healing power, was where many of them thought they wanted to die.

Cardone simply allows these survivors to tell the stories. They aren’t always cheerful – many of the men experience suicidal thoughts because of their multiple medications and most of them have lived so much longer than they ever expected to, so they aren’t in great financial situations. But despite the stigma that still exists in our society about living with HIV and AIDS, this film provides a portrait of people who have never given up. They’ve reinvented themselves, whether by choice or because their surroundings forced them to.

“Desert Migration” is like the desert itself. Stark, intense and hauntingly beautiful.

“Desert Migration” screened today in the Documentary Competition and does not yet have U.S. theatrical distribution. The winning title in the Documentary category will show again on Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. at the Alamo South Lamar. 

Author: Matt Shiverdecker

Matt spent over 12 years as on-air host and Music Director at He is a freelance contributor to the Austin American-Statesman.

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