Memories from the Frontlines
LEH Documentary Film of the Year chronicles AIDS activism in northwest Louisiana.
More than 448,000 Americans died from AIDS between 1981 and 2000. As the epidemic spread, activists fought for fair treatment from government officials and medical providers. A new film chronicles the brave efforts of a group of North Louisiana residents to gain access to the resources needed to combat the disease. Directed by David Hylan and Raydra Hall, Small Town Rage: Fighting Back in the Deep South is this year’s LEH Documentary Film of the Year.
Hylan and Hall are colleagues at the Deaf Action Center in Shreveport, and Small Town Rage started as a project in a documentary film class at Bossier Parish Community College. “The class ended and we had one interview in the bucket,” said Hylan. Over the next four years, the co-directors embarked on a journey to document the friendships, conflicts, and signature moments of the movement. “As things were revealed in interviews, the list of questions for the next person got a little longer.”
The Shreveport chapter of ACT UP, the international advocacy group for people living with AIDS, began at a table at a local diner. Gary Cathey, Chuck Selber, and Joe DeSantis had each returned to Shreveport after stints in New York and California. Influenced by ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, they bonded in their outrage over the lack of spending on AIDS prevention. The conversation at George’s Grill sparked an idea: Why not launch their own organization right here? More activists joined them, and by their third meeting—this time at Shoney’s—the membership had grown to thirty-five.
They launched their first protests against the ignorance of local officials. The film alternates between the frontlines of their protests and the intimate memories of the lives lost to HIV/AIDS. Footage of healthy men enjoying the holidays gives way to pictures of emaciated patients.
For Cathey, the interview process brought back difficult memories of a turbulent time. “It was hard to do it. I learned in talking to the other principals that they had a similar reaction. To just know that you’re going to have to answer all the questions and relive all of the deaths and heartbreaks from that period, it’s intimidating. It causes a lot of emotional upheaval. It was emotional and stressful and depressing, and yet it is something that every one of us knew was our responsibility and duty, to do our best to help David and Raydra because there were far too many of our group who were no longer here to tell their story.”
Small Town Rage depicts the painful journey of its main characters. Family members recall first responders who arrived in Hazmat suits, wary of treating the infected, and health care officials who remained ignorant of the causes and transmission of the disease. ACT UP members responded with furious demands for acknowledgement and treatment. They initiated actions at the LSU Medical Center in Shreveport, where administrators had proposed large signs designating (and thus stigmatizing) the treatment ward.
Three decades later, the film is required viewing for students at the hospital, where it recently screened to a standing-room only audience. Despite the advances in medicine, Louisiana ranks second in the nation in AIDS cases per capita, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Baton Rouge has the highest rate of new infection in the nation among large metropolitan areas; New Orleans ranks third. A 2016 report from the Louisiana Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 1,200 people in Caddo Parish are living with HIV.
At a screening at the Louisiana School for Math, Arts, and Science in Natchitoches, Cathey was struck by the lack of awareness among the students.
“What was remarkable and sad was not just how unaware these students were of our struggle, but how little this generation is aware of HIV,” said Cathey. “A lot of us became too complacent that there were drugs and things that didn’t require us to fight the silence. This experience has taught me that those kids, whether they’re in Tupelo, Mississippi, or a little town in Wyoming, they are as desperately in need of discussions about prevention as students.”
Visit smalltownrage.com to learn more about the film.