Walking with pride, support and strength
Alfred Molina accompanied Joseph Kibler at the AIDS Walk Los Angeles last year.
This was no ordinary partnership.
The actor, with roles in “Frida,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Chocolat” to his name, offered support to Kibler, who is HIV-positive and paraplegic, but was determined to successfully complete the feat.
“There’s no event or way greater to show that not only am I proud of what it’s taken to get to where I’m at, but what it’s taken to get an entire community of HIV/AIDS survivors to that day,” said the 24-year-old Glendale resident. “You can openly be HIV-positive and feel instant support, walking with 30,000 people — there’s nothing that compares.”
Kibler is the protagonist of “Walk On” — an 82-minute documentary on the verge of its world premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival. Molina will be part of the audience.
The film, which was fiscally sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society, includes vignettes of Kibler at public speaking events and reveals the extent of public information and bias about the disease.
The cameras followed Kibler as he prepared by stretching and walking between one and three hours daily to protect his legs from atrophy. Regina Hall, of “Law & Order: LA,” the “Scary Movie” series and “Think Like A Man” fame, walked in a training session with Kibler.
Paralympic amputee sprinter Katy Sullivan, quadriplegic comedian Jay Cramer and Purple Heart veteran Lyvell Gipson — all Kibler’s friends — also star prominently in the movie, which editor, producer and director Mark Bashian ensured is uplifting and informative, not depressing.
“Joe and I have to make sure the information we are sharing is accurate,” said Bashian, who consulted with physicians and representatives of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and AIDS Project Los Angeles. “If five people can be saved from getting HIV, we’ve done our job. That’s a huge amount of pressure and responsibility.”
Kibler discovered his status at a doctor’s appointment when he was 10 — a time when pediatric drugs for HIV/AIDS were few and far between. That was when his mother revealed that she had been infected by Kibler’s father and given birth to twins, both HIV-positive. Her other son, John, passed away shortly after his birth.
“From the moment I learned about my status, it has battled for first place against my disability as the main obstacle to overcome,” Kibler said. “In high school, it certainly won, as if it isn’t enough to be an awkward teenager. Add being HIV-positive to the mix, and finding your place becomes near impossible.”
Watching his companions frolic on skateboards and enjoy sports, he decided that one day he would walk, although doctors warned him otherwise.
“It became a lot more of a personal goal, to prove to others who saw me as different or looked down on me that nothing can stop me,” said Kibler, who progressed from a wheelchair to a walker and then to crutches. When he was 18, he started walking with a cane.
The first time he attempted the 6.2-mile AIDS Walk, he ended up injuring himself. The following year, in which the team began filming “Walk On,” Kibler began training months in advance and was able to finish the walk. He has done so for all four years that the documentary was under construction.
Initially, Kibler planned to shoot a brief public service announcement called “The Way We Walk,” also pegged to the AIDS Walk. It was Bashian, who taught Kibler’s film theory class at the Los Angeles Film School, who honed in on the story’s untapped potential.
“I came up with the name ‘Walk On’ because these individuals are beating medical forecasts and beating the odds with extreme hardships along the way,” said Bashian, 35, of Burbank.
Filming “Walk On” eventually brought Kibler face-to-face with a drug user who admitted to purposely giving himself HIV. While the man, also named Joseph, admitted to contracting it from another man, it was not made clear whether that occurred through drugs or a sexual encounter.
Bashian recalled Kibler breaking down on the ride home, shaken by what had just transpired since he never had the chance to choose his HIV status.
“It was the recklessness of the decision that guy made that reminded me of my father,” Kibler said. “All I ever wanted was for my father to take responsibility [for] a bad situation and make it better, and all I wanted was this same guy to realize that he had a multitude of options ahead of him that could cause a lot less pain.”
When Bashian first tested “Walk On” at a local theater, it received good feedback but was labeled “depressing.” He then tweaked it to focus more on overcoming disabilities than the dangers of AIDS.
During its last trial run, the documentary resonated with the audience.
“One hundred fifty to 200 strangers you don’t know giving you a standing ovation — that’s when we got really excited and knew we had something here,” he said.
When it came time to submit “Walk On” to the Newport Beach Film Festival, Bashian decided to submit a rough copy, without an audio mix and color corrections.
He recalled thinking to himself, “Let’s see how the festival responds and we’ll know we’ve got something good.”
When the film was accepted, however, “it was absolute panic,” he said.
With the screening only six weeks away, Bashian spent more than a week teaching classes during the day and working through the night to finish the color correction. After that, the film was transferred to an HD camera and its audio mix was created.
“Very simply, working on this project has made me a better man, to my friends, my family and my students,” Bashian said.
Where: Fashion Island 5 (Sunday) and Fashion Island 7 (Tuesday) — 701 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
When: 12 p.m. Sunday and 6 p.m. Tuesday