Statistics will tell you that 42 million people are living with the HIV virus worldwide; and that every second, 10 people die from AIDS. But what if someone told you that HIV tests are not accurate? What if someone told you that HIV drugs are pretty much poisons that actually CAUSE more illness and mortality than HIV itself? What if someone told you that HIV is NOT the cause of AIDS? Brent Leung’s mega-controversial documentary “House of Numbers: Anatomy of an Epidemic“ explores those contentious HIV-related issues and many more. Thirty-one year old Leung has described his film as his “journey through the shifting sands surrounding HIV/AIDS”. Throughout the movie, he throws a wrench into everything we know, or think we know, about HIV and AIDS. And I do mean EVERYTHING. He starts with the very definition of “AIDS“ and “HIV“, and moves on to HIV testing, the theories of transmission, statistics of worldwide infection, the actual harm-causing nature of the virus itself, and HIV medication. “House of Numbers” played the worldwide film festival circuit and had a one-week theatrical showing in New York City in 2009 before arriving on DVD last month. The film was lauded by some critics and won several awards during its run, while others no less than crucified the documentary for promoting an “AIDS denialist” agenda. An “AIDS denialist“, in case you didn’t know, is defined as someone who rejects that established scientific theory that HIV does exist, and is the cause of AIDS. Some denialists believe that HIV does not exist, while others believe that HIV may exist but is not the cause, or not the ONLY cause, of AIDS. Is “House of Numbers” an educated exploration of “alternate” theories, or is it promoting a dangerous agenda which will cause people to deny HIV and AIDS, avoid getting testing, and refuse to take medication if they are poz?
As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between the extremes. To its credit, “House of Numbers” does present different points of view and utilizes a mega-impressive range of experts and HIV/AIDS public figures in the process. They include Robert Gallo, credited with the theory that HIV causes AIDS; distinguished physician/scientist/researcher Joe Sonnabend; and Will Ferrell-lookalike Michael Gottlieb, who was the first doctor to diagnose AIDS. Also included is the controversial professor Peter Duesburg, perhaps one of the better-known of the so-called “HIV denialists”. We also meet some subjects living with HIV, some of whom (Christine Maggiore among them) sadly died shortly after filming. Indeed, the film makes some interesting points in regard to HIV/AIDS theories. For example: In poor areas of Africa, where sophisticated testing is not widely available, an AIDS diagnosis can apparently be based on symptoms (fever, weight loss, diarrhea) alone — even without an HIV test. Conversely, we meet two young, subjectively healthy California men who speak about how they are now labeled “sick” and/or “disabled“ based solely on the results of their positive HIV test. On the subject of HIV meds, “House of Numbers” take a very heavy-handed perspective: While one participant fleetingly states that some HIV positive patients have almost no side effects from their meds, much more time is passionately spent on some horror stories, like anecdotes of people who got sicker and even died from the medication. Duesberg calls the HIV meds “AIDS by prescription”. But most controversial of all, of course, is the big question of whether HIV is really the cause of AIDS. Many of the participants, including some who freely identify as poz, stand by their denialist theories, despite all the available evidence presented to them. Whether or not you believe that renegade theory or not, the film does convincingly point out that the idea of “co-factors“ in AIDS– factors contributing to the disease other than HIV alone (like poor sanitation and poverty in developing countries)– have been vastly under-explored through the years. The most bold claim in the movie comes from Luc Montagnier, considered the discoverer of HIV, who states that the healthy immune system can eliminate the virus from the body within a few weeks after exposure.
“House of Numbers” is a must see for anyone interested in the subject of HIV and AIDS. However, viewers will likely be turned off by the “HIV denialist” aspects of the film, which don’t hold their credibility even for the most neutral of viewers. I want to believe as much as some of the subjects in the film that HIV doesn’t exist and/or that it doesn’t cause AIDS, but that theory is simply counterbalanced by reality. Specifically, it’s the reality of anyone affected by in HIV/AIDS on any kind of level through the years, directly or indirectly. (Need a quick dose of that reality? Look at a picture of the AIDS Quilt Project.) The movie may raise questions, but won’t raise optimism; both HIV/AIDS activists as well as those living with the virus will likely be made more upset and confused than before. Robert Gallo is quoted in the film as saying, “In theory, we can cure AIDS on a piece of paper”, fostering the notion that how we define “AIDS“ is largely a matter of semantics. When I mentioned Gallo’s quote to an HIV-positive friend, the friend told me, “Well, that wouldn’t do much to help ME out!“ He’s right, of course, and his reaction made me conclude one thing about this film: Theories, statistics, facts, and different points of view are always a good thing… but only if they can be put to good use afterward. With “House of Numbers“, I’m not so sure they can be.
If filmmaker Brent Leung wanted his movie “House of Numbers” to provoke some serious emotion and to challenge his viewer, he single-handedly accomplished his job with me– even before I ever saw the film. Given its subject matter, “House of Numbers” piqued my interest in a big way– both personally and because it was of interest to my readers. But I missed the film during its one week run in 2009 at New York City’s Quad Cinema. No problem, I thought. As a journalist, I contacted the production company Moxie for the some more info, hoping to possibly get a screener and/or speak with the filmmakers. Neither Moxie, the contacts on the “House of Numbers” website, nor Mr. Leung deigned to return my multiple e-mails or phone calls. It was perplexing. For an independent movie, especially a documentary, the filmmakers or PR people not responding to press inquiries about their movie is pretty dumb, not to mention bad manners. I briefly wondered, if the movie was so controversial that it was trying to “hide” from certain members of the press. Still intent on seeing this film, and realizing that it wouldn’t be shown anywhere in the Northeast anytime soon, I patiently waited for the film to come out on DVD. In the meantime, the reviews of “House of Numbers” that I read were almost universally negative. Many reviewers claim that the film was not much less fictional than the 1957 movie of the same name that starred Jack Palance, serving up so-called “pseudoscience”. Worse, they claim the film is irresponsible for providing a platform for AIDS denialists, and could lead to people themselves denying the existence of HIV, avoiding getting tested, and avoiding taking HIV medications if they test positive . In addition, I later found out that eighteen scientists interviewed in “House of Numbers” stated that their answers to Leung’s questions were selectively edited to give the impression of disharmony among the scientific community in regard to well-established facts about HIV/AIDS. Two interviewees, Neil Constantine and Robin Weiss, cited examples supporting the allegation that Leung misrepresented their words in a “surely intentional” manner.
So, a few weeks ago I received my DVD of “House of Numbers“ in the mail. As an HIV/AIDS activist and health care professional, my main responsibility soon became NOT whether or not “House of Numbers” was a good movie, but rather its implications for those with questions about the disease. Will watching “House of Numbers” keep a person from getting tested for HIV if they buy the movie’s viewpoint that the tests are inaccurate? Will they subscribe to the seductive but toothless theory about HIV not existing, or not causing AIDS? My verdict is: No. Let’s face facts… Anyone who would seek this independent documentary out is likely looking for alternate viewpoints to augment their own knowledge base, not relying on one movie alone for answers. And no one can have too much information, especially someone struggling with HIV or any other health issue. Regardless of our HIV status, we all need to seek out as much info as we can get. However, we must never lose the human and the individual aspects of it all… or else those facts, statistics, theories, become just, well, a “House of Numbers”.