June Cross, who has two national Emmys and two duPont-Columbia Journalism Awards to her credit and is the founder of the Documentary Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, has always been interested in documenting families and issues of public health. Both converge in the most moving of ways for her new film Wilhemina’s War [premieres February 29 at 10pm; check local listings]. One of Cross’s previous films, The Old Man and the Storm for FRONTLINE, followed the travails of an extended New Orleans family for three years after Hurricane Katrina, and she returns to the South to show a widespread disaster of an entirely different kind: HIV.

Wilhemina Dixon, an African American woman in South Carolina raises her granddaughter Dayshal, who was born with the virus, while also nursing her ailing daughter Toni, a drug addict. Through it all Wilhemina’s resolve remains strong and determined. It’s the story of a state and a place that may not be doing nearly enough to fix a health crisis, but also of a woman who is doing all she can do to fight through it.

Cross talked to us about why she wanted to make this film, how she got to know Wilhemina and her family, and how she hopes the film will open some eyes.

Why did you want to make this film?

To bring awareness to an epidemic many people think now exists only in Africa – HIV – and its devastating impact on the African American community, particularly in the American South.

How did you connect with and gain the trust of Wilhemina and her family?

A former student of mine, Lisa Desai, first met Wilhemina and Dayshal, and made the introductions. Lisa had a very close relationship [with them], but then she had to move on to other projects when I ran out of money. At that point, it was on me.  There were several hurdles I had to overcome with Wilhemina and her family: I’m a light-skinned, educated woman, and Wilhemina had felt that my type was more likely to judge than embrace. I gave her the respect she was due. I called her “Miss Mina” and still do – she is older than me. I listened to her problems even when cameras weren’t rolling. I cared. Same thing with Dayshal, who was much harder to crack – there were generations, not just class and education, between us. But I believe in Dayshal. Still do. I pray that this film empowers her to spread her wings and fly.

And why did you want to make Wilhemina and her family the main characters of your film? Since of course there are other people in similar predicaments in the South.

We had as many as five characters at one point. For various reasons, they dropped away – moved, died, or weren’t comfortable with the access required. And Wilhemina wanted to have us tell her story.

Wilhemina's War filmmaker June Cross
Wilhemina’s War filmmaker June Cross

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?

Raising the money and believing that I could even finish it. Two years went by and I didn’t get a positive result from over two dozen grants. That turned out to be a good thing, because I had to dig back into my rushes, and back to my characters, and give them more agency in telling their own stories. It also required me to find a depth of determination I didn’t know I had in myself that this story was important even if those who were screening it in its incomplete phase couldn’t see it.

[Another challenging moment was when] I really wanted to get the point of view of the medical personnel in the nursing home where Toni died. We tried multiple times. They gave us the same runaround they gave Wilhemina. Toni was there under hospice care, and the hospice subcontracted to the nursing home. But within a year they broke off the relationship, and refused to say why. Since these are all private organizations, it would have meant doing a separate film to uncover it all, and at the end of the day I decided the larger public health story of Wilhemina and her family was more important.

[And] the day we melted the camera – this was the same day we met Chamalla, actually. It was 96 degrees by 7:30 a.m.; 115 by noon. The motherboard of the camera melted. Also I suffered a vitreous detachment that day and couldn’t focus the camera. My eyes remained cloudy for about ten days before I finally figured out something serious was amiss!

Do you have a favorite scene in Wilhemina’s War, or one that especially moved or resonated with you?

Meeting Chamalla, the young woman who was planning her own funeral at the wake for Toni, was by far the most devastating scene I shot. I had done stories like this with young gangbangers in Detroit; but to meet a young woman with two kids essentially committing slow suicide was more than I was prepared to handle.

Can you give us a follow-up on how Dayshal is faring these days? I know you’re in touch with her, but the audience I’m sure would love to know.  

Dayshal just texted me this morning that she dropped out of her GED class because she was having difficulty keeping up. I’m not sure if she’s ever been tested for dyslexia, which Wilhemina has; she said she was having trouble with the reading, and she also didn’t have money for gas. So we’re hoping that good things will come to her as a result of the broadcast.

Has anything changed in South Carolina or other Southern states when it comes to funding and education for HIV, since you finished the film, or is the landscape pretty much the same?

The landscape is very much the same. I’m writing this on the eve of the Democratic primary in South Carolina, and it’s important to remember that Democrats are a minority in the state (SC hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1976). African Americans are a majority, population-wise, but they do not turn out to vote.  

As a result of the National HIV/AIDS strategy that President Obama announced in 2010, the federal funding has been flowing more to Southern communities; but HIV is a moving target. Now, young women are no longer dying of the disease; but the majority of those living with HIV are African Americans over 50 years of age. The virus is moving from the rural South to the rural Midwest. The CDC statistics are two years old. We’re fighting a rearguard battle and we need to get in front of it.  Reducing stigma and increasing education are the keys to that. [Note: For more, see our article, “African Americans Hit Hardest by HIV in the South.”]

How can people who want to help those in the film, and people with HIV in the South, reach out and help?

We hope to have a GoFundMe page set up to help Dayshal get tutoring and achieve her college goals. [Editor’s note: June has now launched a GoFundMe page for Dayshal.] Activists working with/on BlackLivesMatter, affordable housing, food insecurity, and so on can make alliances with HIV activists in their areas. Individuals can donate to HIV orgs in their states or especially in the South; activists need to build bridges across areas of commonality, ignoring gender and race, to increase the resources available for all persons living with HIV. 

Wilhemina's granddaughter Dayshal, who is HIV positive, while she does homework
Wilhemina’s granddaughter Dayshal, who is HIV positive

What are your three favorite films?

That changes week to week. For nonfiction films: Stranger with a Camera (2000; Elizabeth Barrett), Crisis (1963; Bob Drew), Eyes on the Prize (1987; Henry Hampton).

What project are you working on or planning on working on next?

I have a feeling I’ll be doing community screenings with Wilhemina’s War for quite awhile! I run a program in documentary filmmaking for journalists at Columbia, and I need to pay some attention to its growth and long term viability. Also, I’m working with Rutgers University to do a short film celebrating their 250th anniversary.

More on the film and June Cross, from NPR: