Movie Review-House of Numbers

What is AIDS? Are you sure?

By ARIENNE HOLLAND • The Tennessean • April 14, 2009

Do you know the difference between HIV and AIDS? Do you know how many people are infected worldwide? Do you know whether you can trust an HIV test?

How do you know?

Filmmaker Brent W. Leung — born in 1980, just before the earliest outbreaks of the disease — wanted answers. “You might say I am member of the first HIV/AIDS generation. I’ve never known a world without it,” he introduces himself in his documentary, House of Numbers.

Leung’s candid interviews with the HIV/AIDS experts who discovered, named, tested, counted and treated the disease reveal more dissent than agreement about the epidemic.

As Leung’s journey takes him across the globe — New York, Shanghai, London, Paris, Australia, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland — he only finds more questions.

Does HIV even exist? That’s debatable.

If it exists, does it cause AIDS? That’s debatable.

Is there a definitive way to diagnose AIDS? That’s debatable.

Can you test positive in one country, and negative in another? That’s clear: yes.

In a train station in Johannesburg, South Africa, Leung takes his own rapid-screening HIV test. The result — well, you’ll have to find out. But can he believe it?

Rapid-screening tests, which test only for antibodies to HIV, are used in most developing countries, while more advanced Western medical testing uses both a screening test and a confirmatory test to eliminate false positives.

But even in Western countries, Leung interviews several individuals tested again and again, each time with a different outcome.

In the end, Leung wonders: Are HIV/AIDS statistics overinflated by poor testing and poor diagnosis? If so, are the billions of dollars spent on AIDS research and drugs useful, when more money spent fighting poverty would boost immunity more quickly?

Watching the debate between scientists, statisticians, politicians, advocates, and of course, sufferers will challenge any viewer’s existing beliefs about HIV/AIDS. And regardless, there is still no cure.

But one of the most poignant, revealing moments of House of Numbers is Leung’s interview with a South African woman.

“A lot of people here is very sick and is very dying,” she said.

“What kind of sickness do you see around here?” Leung asks.

“It’s HIV/AIDS,” she explains.

“What is AIDS?” Leung asks.

With frustration, and a shrug of the shoulders, she exclaims, “We don’t know. We don’t know!”