January 21, 2010, 4:54PM
By personally interesting coincidence, the contrarian AIDS documentary "House of Numbers" opens just as a family friend is flying into Portland in advance of a benefit concert for her father, a local musician suffering from the disease. How fortuitous that I can report to her the film's controversial suggestion: Her dad's malady is not caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. In fact, HIV doesn't exist at all, but is used by researchers and drug companies who inflate infection statistics and terrify the public so government money will continue to flow.
For loved ones of the estimated 25 million who have died from AIDS, the claim might be considered a ludicrous, monstrous lie. But the director, producer, editor and narrator of "House of Numbers," Brent Leung, doesn't seem like a monster at all. He comes off as a pleasant young man conducting an open-minded inquiry into the research establishment's differing views about HIV, testing protocols and statistical science, a confusion that trickles down to the public. Of course, by the end of the film you'll likely be more confused about HIV/AIDS than ever, and that's just the way Leung wants it.
This slick film builds its case methodically, relying on globe-trotting field studies and interviews with a number of prominent AIDS researchers and activists to build legitimacy and to also, it seems, reveal damning contradictions. For example, in an incident in South Africa, Leung gets tested for HIV and is told that he will receive two identical tests.
If one is positive and the other negative, then he will take a third, different test that is "most accurate." If the third test is most accurate, Leung asks, why not just take that one? Because, the nurse says, the less-accurate test results tell us the third test is most accurate. It is strongly inferred that this anecdotal experience shows that no HIV test can be believed.I am not qualified to refute every claim made in this movie, but I have seen enough topical documentaries to have a good idea when a filmmaker is not being entirely honest with viewers. Relying on selective editing, anomalies and anecdotes, unsupported conclusions -- early AIDS deaths were caused by overexposure to amyl nitrate? -- and suppression of inconvenient facts (revealing neither the post-filming death of anti-AZT activist Christine Maggiore from AIDS-related pneumonia, nor the reason for her notoriety) allows Leung to maintain a narrative casting suspicion on everything we think we know and the "experts" who propagate the "official" story.