Southern Gothic

For Miami filmmaker Tag Purvis, completing his first full-length movie wasn't just a matter of going home. He also had to stay alive.

While Tag was touring with Up With People, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Purvis eventually left the organization and came home to a job with his father. "That was not going to work," Purvis recalls. "All my friends had left. Meridian's a place where people leave and come back to raise their families. In my case I didn't know what I would do there or who I would hang out with."

He stayed in Meridian for a year, taking classes at a community college. Then he went to Orlando to work at Disney World for a while, where he happily conducted the Jungle Cruise. He was 23 years old then, and had a steady boyfriend. Though he'd had only a few other relationships, he decided one day to go to the county health department in Orlando for an HIV test. "I just had a feeling," he says. "The lady told me to have a seat, then I knew." He was told he was HIV-positive and instructed to see a doctor and take care of himself, to try to keep healthy.

Purvis, like most everyone in the early days of AIDS, knew little about the disease. "I went out that night and bought tennis shoes," he recalls, smiling at his naivete. "I thought I should start running."

He soon moved to Providence to stay with his brother Warren, who helped him financially and, as a doctor, assisted him in seeking treatment. Tag took part in several test studies for AZT and other medicines as they became available. He maintained a healthy lifestyle and did not get sick.

"I always believed that if I could live for ten years, there would be significant changes in the treatment of AIDS," Purvis recalls. Although AIDS-related deaths were rising, and the devastation caused by the disease was increasingly in the news, he was optimistic. "There wasn't a part of my life when I chose to believe that I would die," he says. "But there was a period when I feared that I would."

He continued to take it one day at a time. "I remember thinking in terms of Thanksgivings," he says. "I used to go home for Thanksgiving and I just wanted to be well, which I was. I figured if I could just live for ten Thanksgivings, I'd be fine, there would be a new drug. You just do it in little goals."

He told only his boyfriend (who tested negative) and his psychiatrist brother Warren, who is also gay. He wanted to keep the news from his mother, who had come out of remission and was growing progressively ill as the cancer spread through her body. She died in 1989. Afterward Tag didn't have the heart to tell his grieving father, either.

"I didn't want to put him through anything else," Purvis explains. "But it got to the point where it wasn't fair to him and it wasn't fair to me. Keeping information like that from certain people who are very important to you is really draining and it's ultimately not right."

He finally told his father two years ago. He was totally supportive, as he had been when Tag talked to him about being gay a few years before. (He had not told his mother he was gay, but assumes she guessed.) "Every day you come closer to dying," Guy Purvis says. "Tag lives every day to the fullest, and that's the way our family has always been. Don't act like you're going to die tomorrow, but have a good time today."

Tag Purvis remained healthy, but as confronting the disease forced him to contemplate his life, it inspired him to think seriously about a career in film. He took some classes in Boston, then chose to come to Miami for its weather and diverse culture. "Frankly I needed a little cha-cha-cha," he laughs. He had never finished college in Mississippi and so he enrolled as an undergraduate in UM's motion-picture department.

After thirteen years of living with HIV, Purvis acknowledges he's a survivor. He estimates he's lost about fifteen friends to AIDS-related diseases. In 1995 alone his three best friends died. Devastated, he tried to come to terms with his pain through his art. He paid homage to his loved ones in a poignant installation at Art Center/South Florida's Ground Level Gallery that included film loops of his lost friends projected onto empty chairs.

"Now I try not to get ahead of myself in terms of what matters," explains Purvis, who maintains a daily medical regimen of various prescriptions. "Sometimes I fail miserably. The face of this disease has changed so much that it's easy to forget the lessons you've picked up along the way. I just don't want to speed through everything and forget that it's not about yesterday or tomorrow. It's about today."

Nikko Tsiotsias and Purvis are close to finishing the rough cut of the film, which is down to an hour and 46 minutes. Purvis has been told that distributors won't even look at anything much longer than an hour and a half. Alerted by notices in the trade press, representatives of several major companies, including Miramax and Sony, have already called asking to see it. But Purvis is waiting to screen Red Dirt at festivals. He hopes to debut it at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in September.

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