Artists from India take to the streets of Calcutta during the Make Art/Stop AIDS conference, which is featured in the focumentary 'Out in India.' (photo by Tom Keegan)

MAIN LIBRARY — When director Tom Keegan followed David Gere, Peter Carley and their two children to India in 2004 after Gere received a Fulbright scholarship to study the intersection of AIDS and art, he was uncertain about the direction his documentary of the trip, “Out in India” screening April 11 at the Santa Monica Library, would take.

In fact, upon learning about his friends’ plans, he was not scheduled to go along at all.

“They came over with their kids and said, ‘We might be doing this crazy thing,’” Keegan said. He was discussing Gere and Carley’s plan at work when a producer mentioned someone should make a documentary about their journey.

As a fellow gay father whose brother died of AIDS, Keegan agreed someone should, and eventually, he said, “A little light went off in my head and I said, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”

Upon their arrival in India, Keegan said the couple found not just a chance to study, but also an opportunity for activism, giving the documentary new direction.

Gere, a professor at UCLA, found that many artists were working independently to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS from Mumbai to Dehli to the family’s base in Bangalore. He realized he had an opportunity to bring them together, an idea he first had while teaching a global HIV and the arts course.

“Most of my attention [on AIDS] was on big cities in the United States,” Gere said. “I’m looking in my own backyard, but I’m not looking at the whole wider world in front of me.”

Gere introduced his non-profit activism group, Make Art/Stop AIDS, as a forum for these artists to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in India through their art. Although Make Art/Stop AIDS was in the works before his trip, he said it was made official at a meeting attended by 75 artists in Calcutta.

The stigma in India associated with HIV/AIDS, which affects mainly married individuals, leads to a general fear of HIV in a society that places a high premium on marriage, Gere said.

“India is a very marriage-oriented society,” Keegan said. “The culture and economy rest on marriage.”

While in India, the family felt the sting of living outside the bounds of a traditional marriage, leading to conflict between Gere and Carley, both longtime HIV/AIDS activists who have lost partners to the disease. While Gere spent most of his time in the field advocating, Carley remained at home with the kids where, “no one wanted to be his friend,” Keegan said. However, Carley was able to translate his hardship into a new sense of activism — raising children with an openness and awareness of the world.

Keegan worked to weave together the story of the art project with the story of the family, and said it all came together with spontaneous art on the streets of Calcutta, ending his first feature-length documentary. Keegan, who mainly works voice directing video games, also has experience in theater and short films telling people’s real-life stories. These experiences provided him both the skills and sensitivity to execute the documentary.

“As a documentarian, you’re a voyeur … you’re asking someone to open up to you,” Keegan said. “It’s a very vulnerable thing when you allow yourself to be seen on film.”

He said the family was extremely generous in sharing their lives with him, and he wanted to honor the message Gere and Carley set out to send. Part of this involved Keegan doing his best to show the experience through the couple’s eyes, without too many talking-head interviews.

Since its debut, “Out in India” has been screened at film festivals in the United States, India, Brazil, Italy and many European cities, including London. It has additionally racked up awards at the Torino Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Seattle On-Line Film Festival. Keegan said viewers of the film are inspired by art’s power to change lives while simultaneously made more comfortable with the notion of a gay family.

“When I was doing it, I just had a sense that this is really something, this is a really good story,” Keegan said. “When we all saw the response of audiences all across the world, they thought it was worth it.”

While making the documentary, which Keegan referred to as earning his master’s degree in film making, he found himself adhering to the doctrine of David and Albert Maysles, the pioneers of cinéma vérité.

“They’re teaching just going into the story without any preconceived ideas of where it’s going to go,” Keegan said. “I found that was really true.”

At the April 11 Santa Monica screening, Gere and Carley will both be present to discuss their experiences in India. While the documentary continues to screen, Keegan said the next step is cutting the film down from 70 minutes to 55 minutes for television so he can share the inspiring story with a broader audience.

“I wanted to tell the story and I also wanted to show a gay couple with kids trying to do something big on a world scale,” Keegan said. “I really like ordinary heroes.”

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