Trust Movies, James van Maanen

See Brent Leung's HOUSE OF NUMBERS;
ignore the fundamentalist backlash

When HOUSE OF NUMBERS -- Brent Leung's excellent documentary
about AIDS and HIV -- opened for a week's run last year, it was
savaged in a particularly nasty review in The New York Times. When,
last September, Trust Movies read that review, he immedi- ately
concluded that the film was not worth his time. Big mistake. He
should have read between the lines. Because Mr. Leung (shown below)
questions the "perceived wisdom" and the medical/political
establishment party-line on AIDS and HIV, the Times reviewer (as well
as another in the British medical journal Lancet only this month),
suggests that Mr. Leung will next turn his attention to questioning the
existence of gravity.

To begin with, any scientist (or even a well-informed layman) who imagines that the law of gravity and what is known about AIDS are remotely comparable in quality or quantity should turn in his degree or give up his day job (and perhaps become a Times reviewer!). Both reviews also claim that House of Numbers is a forum for AIDS "denialists." I do not think so. The documentary never denies the existence of AIDS or HIV. But it questions -- and question hard -- various held-as-gospel concepts about HIV and AIDS.
What is the diagnosis for having AIDS, and what symptoms does this
diagnosis include? Don't ask. Or if you do, be sure to note what country
you're visiting at the time. (Funny that neither of the above nasty
reviews tackle this question -- or cogently address any of Leung's primary
points.) Diagnoses have changed so over time and over country that this
becomes one of Leung's major problems with how AIDS and HIV are
perceived. AIDS testing is another. The filmmaker goes to South Africa,
takes an AIDS test from a sweet young woman who should probably not be
giving the test, or at least should be offering better information, and
while in that ex-Apartheid place, looks into the major poverty there and
wonders, as do many South Africans, some of whom we hear from
(see below), that perhaps there is some mixing-up going on between AIDS
diagnoses and immune systems racked by malnutrition and disease.


Leung does not insist that one condition equals the other -- something
that both the Lancet and Times reviews above say he does; the Lancet
review also says that House of Numbers claims that there is no
connection between HIV and AIDS. It does not. Instead it offers up the
possibility of co-factors -- a damaged immune system due to poverty or
drug use (doctor-prescribed or recreational). Yet neither review
mentions the co-factor theory (which has been around for some time

Approaching 70, TrustMovies predates the AIDS epidemic. He saw it
happen here in New York City and has seen numerous friends,
acquaintances, sexual encounters and one full-time lover fall to the
disease. He's followed the ins-and-out of the official story and has from
time to time questioned it -- as have many others who some- times have
had problems accepting what the medical establishment and drug
companies are telling us. This does not make us AIDS denialists, but we
do believe that there is much more to the story that is being told. And
we wonder, as does Mr. Leung and some of his interviewees (one of which
is shown above), why so little funding is given over to any theories other
than those of the tow-the-line establishment? Instead, money and
research goes to prop up what seems like a faulty-from-the-start theory,
full of holes, and to the drug companies, which keep pumping out a
lifetime of drug therapies to those infected.


However, TrustMovies is no scientist. So he asked an acquaintance and
occasional web reviewer who is a science writer for some corroboration.
Anthony Liversidge, founder and managing editor of Science Guardian,
was happy to give it Liversidge has also been following the AIDS/HIV
story for decades and says that House of Numbers get its facts right and
is, in his opinion, a trustworthy documentary. (In fact, Liversidge
covered the film before I did.)


I have now seen the documentary twice -- and could easily sit through
it another time or two, so dense is it with information and statistics,
not to mention interviews with a number of establishment and
anti-establishment figures, all of whom answer Leung's questions and
often dig themselves deeper and deeper into the muck. (Little wonder
a number of these people are up in arms about the film; it does not
make them look good.) Leung paces his film well, and threads along his
main story the smaller stories of several individuals worth hearing.
There are man-in-the-street interviews, as well those with the big boys
(and girls). It all adds up to 90 thought-provoking minutes.


My biggest question after viewing House of Numbers is why there is
such an enormous backlash against it. Were it as "wrong" as its
opponents claim, they could easily contest it on a point by point basis;
instead they simply keep trying to stop it wholesale -- as though it has
no right to be seen and heard. I have spoken with director Leung
several times now and learned that, at screenings, groups and
individuals are often lined up shouting against the movie. Journalists
originally disposed favorably toward the film post-viewing, suddenly
come out against it after "a good talking to." This strikes me as
censorship, which has no place in real science -- although throughout
history, it is always present.


House of Numbers hints at a conspiracy between medical establishment
and drug companies. God knows there has been enough conflict-of-
interest scandals in that department over the years -- from doctors
hawking cigarettes in ads and TV commercials way-back-when to the
more recent examples. Celia Farber did some fine investigative reporting
for Harpers some time back on the subject of AIDS drugs, and more
recently in New York magazine, David France reports on what the AIDS
cocktail concoction is doing to AIDS sufferers now. AIDS drugs have always
been dangerous: AZT was toxic-unto-death; the latest batch remains toxic
enough to noticeably shorten the life span and productivity of its users.


Regarding the possibility of mistaking (deliberately or otherwise)
African (South and otherwise) poverty symptoms for AIDS -- as Leung
and others continue to suggest -- this seems quite a legiti- mate
question. So far as the gay community and a suppressed immune
system are concerned, this connection has been on our minds since
AIDS made its nasty debut in the early 1980s. Its appearance came at a
time when many gay men were doing drugs that we now know suppress
the immune system. But rather than owning up and then investigating
this at the time, the connection was played down so that gays'
"lifestyle" could not be blamed for acquiring AIDS. Yes, of course, there
was and is enough homopho- bia out there already, so one can
understand gay leaders' reluct- ance to admit to possible lifestyle
consequences. But, hello -- what if? Suppressing the truth eventually
comes back to bite you in the ass; by now it's little wonder so many gay
posteriors are a bit raw.


From the very start AIDS research smacked of trouble. American
claims to have discovered the HIV virus was almost immediately
countered by those in France (that's Luc Montagnier, above). While
the prize eventually went to both scientists/countries, suspicions were
never really put to rest. Since then so many questions have arisen
regarding the virus and the disease -- its source, diagnosis, even the
very existence of the virus, that -- instead of truly answering questions
and looking further for missing information, the establishment instead
decided to stonewall, and has continued this stance ever since -- calling
the questioners everything from crazy to murderous because "denialism
kills" (that's the Lancet). I think it's time to call out the real denialists:
doctors, researchers, drug companies and politicians who are unable
and/or unwilling to allow dissent and questioning -- and the shrieking
banshees at screenings who want to keep this film from being seen and
discussed. These are the kind of tactics indulged in by our former political
administration, are they not? Power closing rank and discrediting all
disagreement. I'm not even saying that House of Numbers is right about
everything. But it absolutely needs to be seen and argued about. It's not
the best documentary of the year by a long shot -- but it may be the
most important.


Your next chance to see the film begins this Friday, January 22, when
it be screened in Portland, Oregon, at the Regal Fox Tower Stadium
Ten. Take that chance, if you're in the area. Check the film's web
site for further screenings, and look for a DVD to be released later in
the year.