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DISEASE DEBATE. Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Brent Leungís House of Numbers ó a documentary about HIV/AIDS ó suggests that the history of the disease is being rewritten. Leung (pictured) was in Portland last month for the filmís weeklong theatrical screening at the Regal Fox Tower 10 Theater. (Photo courtesy of Knowledge Matters)
From The Asian Reporter, V20, #5 (February 2, 2010), page 11.
HIV/AIDS documentary raises controversial questions about the disease
House of Numbers
Directed by Brent Leung
Produced by Knowledge Matters
Distributed by Rocky Mountain Pictures
By Allison Voigts
Until watching the new HIV/AIDS documentary House of Numbers by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Brent Leung, I had no idea "AIDS deniers" exist. Frequently compared to Holocaust deniers, they are people who argue that HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) has not been scientifically proven to cause AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). Brent Leung is not one of these people.
"My initial question was ĎWhat is the difference between HIV and AIDS, and why havenít we cured it?í" says the soft-spoken 29-year-old. "I wanted to do a 15-minute documentary."
What emerged after a decade of research is a 90-minute film that asks many hard questions about HIV/AIDS, thrusting the film, and Leung, into the center of fierce debate in the media and the scientific community.
In House of Numbers, Leung sits down with prominent scientists and physicians who were integral in the discovery and continued research of HIV/AIDS, including Robert Gallo, who discovered the virus in 1984, and Peter Duesberg, one of the first scientists to claim that HIV does not cause AIDS.
An hour and a half and dozens of interviews later, there are no clear answers on what HIV/AIDS is or why it hasnít been cured, in part because the scientists disagree on everything from definition to treatment. We learn that the definition of AIDS is constantly changing and that many different diseases can be diagnosed as AIDS.
Furthermore, a number of different HIV tests exist (including rapid tests that use survey questions in reaching the diagnosis) and a patient can receive contrasting answers from different tests.
Then there are the expensive drugs created by the pharmaceutical industry to treat HIV, often with devastating results. One drug, Zidovudine (or AZT), was listed by the State of California as a cancer-causing chemical in December.
While the film questions scientific conclusions about the disease, it also addresses the culture of fear and paranoia surrounding it. One South African who is interviewed explains that in his village, if someone loses weight or gets a fever, everyone assumes it is AIDS. Meanwhile the camera shows raw sewage running through the street and flies landing on a plate of rice.
As part of the first generation to grow up with AIDS, Leung says he worried (as many of us did) about going to the movies and sitting on a seat with an HIV-infected needle planted in it.
"You go into any Starbucks and see the RED campaign (for AIDS), but most people canít explain the difference between HIV and AIDS," he says. "And you canít blame them when even the scientists disagree."
Critics of House of Numbers have been quick to label Leung a "denialist." The New York Times called the film "weaselly," and The Oregonian asserted that Leung wishes to cause confusion. Some of the scientists interviewed in the film, including Gallo, signed a statement condemning it. But the filmmaker maintains he is not advocating for one side or the other.
"This is truly a religion, and you canít question it," he says.
House of Numbers is Leungís first film (he formerly edited music videos). Though the shy director is learning to accept the controversy caused by the movie, he says he looks forward to moving on to his next project ó a romantic comedy.
House of Numbers completed its weeklong theatrical screening at Portlandís Regal Fox Tower 10 Theater last month and will be released on DVD in June. For more information about the film, including future screenings, visit <www.houseofnumbers.com>.