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House of Numbers - film review
Director Brent Leung is a brave man. But what makes his explosive documentary, House of Numbers , so undeniably effective, is that he didn't set out to be. As he tells us in the film, he was born in 1980...part of the first AIDS generation, a group who came into their sexuality with the threat of HIV strapped to their genitals like a potentially lit bundle of dynamite. A few years ago, Leung came to learn there has always been a debate over the current HIV/AIDS scientific paradigm. Having never known a world without AIDS, this intrigued him, and so his investigative journey began. He was not trying to show courage through radical activism or by asserting some aggressive agenda. He had some questions, and he went around the world asking top HIV/AIDS scientists for the answers.
Now...one would think that, at least on the basic facts, these pioneers of HIV/AIDS research and treatment might all agree. Think again. They not only don't agree, they contradict each other in ways that are truly terrifying. From these orthodox HIV experts, there is no agreement on what HIV looks like, how it kills human cells, how the virus is isolated, how one confirms an HIV test, how drugs should be used to treat it, whether co-factors are necessary, or if our own immune systems can beat it all on their own. And there is much scandal on how it came to be "discovered" in the first place. There are moments in the film when I found myself laughing heartily at this clownish behavior from our world's top scientists; it almost plays like satire. But then I'd remember: this is about lives . And there is nothing at all funny about this. To his credit, Leung does not try to elicit laughs...he simply places the interviews side by side, juxtaposing so as to highlight the contradictions. It serves to rattle any trust one may have in our medical establishment. In an instant, these scientists lose credibility and reveal that on the issues of HIV/AIDS, it is confusion, not certainty that prevails.
In addition, the film gives voice to many self-proclaimed "dissidents" like Peter Duesberg, Kary Mullis (Nobel Prize winner), and the late Christine Maggiore - along with investigative journalists Celia Farber and Liam Scheff. To many, their opinions might seem downright insane. What do you mean HIV might not cause AIDS? What do you mean we're wasting money giving Africans HIV drugs when all they need is clean water and nutritional food? What do you mean "lifestyle" may indeed have played a role in the immune collapse of some gay men in the early 1980s? None of these are said to be "true" and all are politically incorrect at best, heretical at worst. But accompanied by the orthodox swamp of contradictions, one sits back and ponders...deeply.
The film was screened this week at the Washougal International Film Festival. Brent Leung and his producer were present and most humble. Knowing the film has received great backlash from the orthodox scientists he interviewed, I asked the director to respond to accusations that he has somehow misrepresented them in the documentary. He simply said, "Not one person has ever offered a specific example of how I have done so. We invite them to join in on the discussion. We want there to be an ongoing dialogue." An audience member asserted that many of the outraged are linked to pharmaceutical companies that manufacture HIV medications. My research has shown this to be, at least in part, true. And one must ask, "How could he misrepresent them?" There are long interview segments with clear, unedited responses. It's not as if Leung utilizes second-to-second jump cuts to create a message. In fact, the style of the piece is very straight-forward and journalistic with very little editorial commentary. It trusts the audience to draw individual conclusions.
If there is one moment of overt theatricality in the film, it is in its final frames when the score serves to highlight a most shocking revelation offered by Luc Montagnier, who just last year was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering HIV. He says that one can be exposed numerous times to HIV and that if they have a strong immune system, their bodies can cleanse it out. He is asked to repeat this notion by Mr. Leung...as if the director cannot believe what was just said. Montagnier does not hesitate. He reaffirms with a simple "yes" - and with that, the ominous piano and minor synth-string chords echo out. But you know, this moment earns a touch of scary music - because the implications are monumental.
If Luc Montagnier is correct...if the discoverer of HIV is right ...then an HIV+ status might be meaningless. If one is exposed to HIV and cleanses it out, then the immune system's antibodies have done their job - but those antibodies would still show up on the HIV antibody test, resulting in a + result. This happens a lot with other diseases. For instance, I test + for TB, which means I was exposed to it and beat it. But with HIV, a + test result currently means lifelong drugs and eventual death. Are there thousands of people partaking in the drug protocol who actually have immune systems strong enough to battle it alone? Given the drugs are lethally toxic, might this be considered a type of mass medical homicide?
Throughout the film, the struggles of an HIV+ baby girl and her adoptive parents are followed. While still a toddler, she experienced horrific side effects from the AZT regimen given to her by doctors to keep her alive. When the parents reported the horrible side effects, they were told it was HIV creating the leg cramps and other painful symptoms. Finally, the parents turned to dissident Peter Duesberg who convinced them to take their daughter off the meds and leave HIV behind.
During the Q&A after the film, this little girl - now a beautiful, healthy 19 year-old young woman - came onto the stage with her mother. It was a truly breathtaking moment - one that could not be more illustrative. She has not taken a drug since she was a toddler. She has no idea what her "numbers" are in terms of CD4 counts and viral load. For her, it is clear HIV is something of a mythological boogey man...something that haunted her early childhood, and has been forever locked in the closet.
And that is what I was left with. Is HIV the deadly epidemic that defines modern sexuality? Or is it a boogey man perpetuated by a passionate, often well meaning medical community that might have it all wrong? Brent Leung is a brave man, because he dares to ask. But what scares me more than anything is: how have we come to a place in our scientific discussions that one should have to be brave to simply ask a question?
NOTE: The film is screening all over the US and in the UK in festivals and other showings. Check HouseofNumbers.com for more information.