While working on a documentary feature about AIDS in the American South, Brian Bolster stumbled upon a funeral director in Jackson, Mississippi, who has ensured that people who died of the disease get a proper burial — even when family members abandon their bodies.
Bolster’s encounter with Ralph “Trey” Sebrell, director of Jackson’s Sebrell Funeral Home, formed the basis for his documentary short “Departing Gesture,” a finalist in TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival.
Bolster, who also made the 2015 ShortList with a previous documentary short, “One-Year Lease,” was drawn to covering AIDS in the South after seeing the disparity between urban centers and rural areas in the level of care and education available.
“We think [AIDS] is under control here, and in many ways, it is, because of access to treatment,” Bolster said. “The epidemic has just shifted and transformed to the South where… some doctors don’t even know what PrEP is,” he added, referring to pre-exposure prophylactic medications that HIV-negative people use to prevent infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 52 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2017 in the U.S. occurred in Southern states, and black gay and bisexual men are more likely to become infected than any other group in the country. Bolster plans to focus on this demographic in his upcoming feature.
During a research trip to Grace House, a Jackson housing facility for people living with HIV and AIDS, Bolster was introduced to Sebrell. The funeral director partnered with Grace House to handle the cremation and burial of residents who die and are not claimed by their next of kin.
“When these people feel like they have been abandoned, it’s nice to know that there’s someone there who’s going to help take care,” Bolster said. “You don’t have to go into the city morgue as an unnamed person or be buried in a pauper’s field. You’re given some dignity when you need it the most.”
The filmmaker plans to continue talking to people affected by AIDS in the South as he ramps up production on his feature over the next year. “It still is a problem here in this country,” he said. “It’s not something that is completely under control. There are still populations and people who are being overlooked.”
Watch the film above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote through Aug. 21.