She won QFest’s Audience Award for Best Documentary, black./womyn.: conversations with lesbians of African descent, in 2008. Now, Philadelphia QFEST 2012 witnesses the debut of Bumming Cigarettes, a short that examines the quick and intimate bond that happens between two strangers awaiting HIV test results.
Phillesbian.com sat down with the award-winning director and writer, tiona m., and she dished on the film, life in Philly, and why nobody talks about HIV/AIDS in the black lesbian community.
Q: There are people in the film that are from Philadelphia. Are you a native of Philly as well?
A.: “I’m not a native; I’ve been here six years. I moved here in 2006 from Atlanta and I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. I’m a Southerner, born and raised.”
Q: Do you consider this home?
A: “Yes, I do. This is my adult, my decided home. This is a real decision to be in a certain kind of place and to call it home.”
Q: Tell me about the inspiration behind this movie. Where did that come from?
A: “It’s very much linked to a personal experience I had. Some elements of what’s in the film is very much my experience, but there’s other elements that are really based off of experiences that I’ve had with different people and different gay designated areas of cities that I’ve lived in and traveled to.”
Q: Were these the basis of your characters?
A: “In these spaces, what I always found consistent were these individuals that no matter what time of day, what time of year you went to these areas – you would always see them. It was interesting me; they were primarily older men, that became representatives of that area and could tell you the history of that area at the drop of a dime or engage you in a funny, intimate friend way. What I realized is that there was a range of backgrounds of who these people really were, ranging from sex workers, to those who were homeless, to those with HIV/AIDS. These were the conversations that I was having, so, I wanted to start by creating a character who is a representation of those men with a certain kind of dignity, but, have been through a lot but are still very caring. Jimmy is a representation of that.”
Q: Who is your female character based on?
A: “Vee has elements of my life as well. I kept thinking what it feels like to be a black lesbian woman and have to deal with a situation where you feel like your status may be put in jeopardy, in terms of STDs, based on the actions of others. I wanted to embody what the experience would look like, what that feels like and what the testing experience would look like.”
Q: Do you want to tell me more about that story and what happened?
A (laughs): “I don’t want to get into too much detail but, I’ve been in relationships where there’s been cheating. After that, I don’t think my thought was to immediately get tested. But, I had to think about that. The personal part of that is, I was born in 1981 so consecutively, during that time I’ve always had a birthday that paralleled the discovery of AIDS so, I always had a weird connection to these stories. So this is a parallel story I’ve always had to be aware of.”
Q: As lesbians, do you think as a group we do not protect ourselves enough from contracting STDs?
A: “I think as a lesbian, when somebody cheats, it’s like, ‘whatever, we’re not at risk so we don’t have to worry about that.’ But, I’ve always been worried about that. I remember thinking about the times when I’ve been put in those situations and in talking to friends, I realized how many of us don’t get tested. Having heard of individuals within the black lesbian community having contracted the virus, I think there is an undercover narrative that nobody talks about. No one talks about feeling violated, the uncertainty of your status, that anticipation of fear or peace with whatever happens, happens. I wanted to revisit that.”
Q: Did you have anyone go with you like Jimmy was there in Bumming Cigarettes for Vee?
A: “No. This was back in 2007. I was waiting for 40 minutes.”
Q: Was this the first HIV test you had ever done?
A: “No. I had the test where it took two weeks for results, 45 minutes, etc.”
Q: But, this test was special because you felt violated?
A: “Yes, this was very different from any other time. It put me in a different perspective. I was very hyperaware of what was going on around me. I very much remember paying attention to that corner, 12th and Locust, and looking at the bar, that stoop, that space and how people interacted with each other. What I noticed immediately was that people would bum cigarettes off each other, people who would never even talk to one another! So, that formed the basis of how someone could meet in dialogue, how a moment like this could happen naturally with two people in the same vicinity and keep them there in a certain type of space.”
Q: So, did you ever smoke cigarettes?
A: “I smoked cloves. I don’t know how my lungs took that but, I carried my own. I’ve just always noticed how bumming cigarettes served as a background for people of very different walks of life engage each other in conversation. I think it’s one of the most random acts of kindness. Now, don’t think I’m supporting smoking, but I’ve seen people who would never engage one another in talking, outside at a party or bar, engrossed in conversation. I’ve always noticed that. They’re doing something that’s damaging their health, clearly, but its bringing you together and people have interesting conversations if you pay attention to what they’re talking about. Then, they end and they go their separate ways.”
Q: How old were you when you took this test and were scared for your status for the first time?
A: “28. I think the older you get, you have to think about things like your sexual partners. And when you have to think about those narratives like I’ve heard, of people I grew up with contracting HIV, it becomes real.”
Bumming Cigarettes is a 24-minutes short film that premieres Friday, July 20, 2012, 7:15 p.m., at the Ritz at the Bourse as part of the Black, Blues and Other Hues shorts program during QFest. For more information, ‘Like’ Bumming Cigarettes-A Short Film on Facebook, follow @bummingcigsfilm on Twitter or visit www.bummingcigarettes.com.
Christina Ferraz is a Texas ex-pat, living and loving gay life in S. Philly. She’s a freelance contributor to Phillesbian.com, and can be reached at email@example.com.