Amid the 123 selected films at this year’s Tacoma Film Festival, there is a documentary that will both touch you deeply and teach you things you may never have known about an often-maligned and misunderstood population of people – the HIV positive men, women and children who call America home.
“Walk On” gives a real-life, matter-of-fact, yet tender look at those living with the HIV virus through the life of one man who was born with the disease. Joseph Kibler and his brother, John, both received the virus from their mother, who had been infected by their father. Physically disabled by the disease such that his ability to walk is severely impaired, Kibler defied his doctors’ medical prognosis and went from a wheelchair, to a walker and then to a cane by the age of 18. Three years later, he took on a personal challenge to walk the full 6.2-mile Los Angeles AIDS Walk.
Watching Kibler train for the Walk, it’s impossible not to feel your heart go out to him in compassion and encouragement for what he has set out to do. It’s obvious how painful and exhausting it is for him to walk laps around a flat running track. He walks as if he has cerebral palsy, but it was HIV that affected his neurological process and gave him symptoms similar to cerebral palsy.
“Walk On” is such an intelligent film in how it takes issues surrounding HIV and AIDS out of the realm of the gay community and into the broader populace affected by the disease – the ones we don’t often see or hear from, such as those who contracted HIV at birth and not through unprotected sex or injection drug use. Kibler said he intended this while making the film – to break away from the “type” of person people often associate with HIV and AIDS.
“It’s not to exclude any group. We wanted to shed light on the other side,” he said in an interview with Tacoma Weekly. “Everyone who sees my obstacles knows I have a disability – the one that affects me the most is the one that’s not on the surface.”
Feeling the brunt of the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS, Kibler said he didn’t talk openly about his positive status until he was 17 years old – and he did it on a theater stage in acting school.
“We were onstage and the teacher said to tell something you’ve never told anyone before. I stood there and said my name is Joseph Kibler and I’m HIV positive.” He said it was far more empowering for him than anything else when his classmates came up to him, hugged him and accepted him rather than rejecting him.
As “Walk On” gives its account of Kibler’s personal AIDS Walk challenge, the film takes viewers along on his journey and to meet the wonderful friends and family the young man has at his side. Among them are Katy, a double-amputee Paralympic sprinter; Lyvell, a Purple Heart veteran of the Army seriously injured by a suicide bomber; and Jay, a quadriplegic stand-up comedian. Each of them, and Joseph too, have dedicated their lives to speaking to school children and university students about overcoming physical limitations to achieve your dreams. Kibler talks about the risks of contracting HIV, despite an ever-growing sense of complacency among youth in particular that HIV isn’t the danger it once was. One of his doctors put it this way in the film: “HIV is a treatable disease – it’s not a curable disease” (provided the multiple-medication regimen works, since it doesn’t for everyone). And the most detrimental cause to controlling the virus’ spread is the belief that “it won’t happen to me.” This is why people don’t make time to be tested, and why mothers can unknowingly pass HIV on to their babies.
The film also features actors Alfred Molina and Regina Hall (who film lovers will remember from the hilarious comedy horror spoof “Scary Movie” series).
Kibler said he never really meant to make a feature film with “Walk On.” It started off as his thesis project at the Los Angeles Film School – a public service announcement about why people participate in AIDS Walks. When one of his film teachers, Mark Bashain, got involved, and his classmate Scott Crawley came on to help with editing, the seed for a feature film was planted.
“When (Crawley) found out my story, he pulled me aside and said listen, they’re not the story – you are,” Kibler recalled. From there, Bashain would become the film’s director and Crawley would be director of photography. Since then, “Walk On” has won numerous accolades. In addition to being an Official Selection of the 2013 Tacoma Film Festival, the film has won Best Documentary Feature at the Burbank International Film Festival, and was an Official Selection of the Wine Country Film Festival (California), the New Orleans Film Festival and the Newport Beach Film Festival.
When the film plays Washington State for the first time, in Tacoma at The Grand Cinema on Oct. 8, 8:30 p.m., Kibler and Bashain will be in attendance.
Word to the wise: Put some Kleenex in your pocket before you go to the theater to be prepared for this moving and heart-felt film.