The Origins of AIDS

Ronnie Scheib, Variety, May 3, 2004

© 2004 Reed Elsevier Inc.


A Multimedia France Prods. (in France)/Les Prods. Galafilm (in Canada)/Pathe Archives/Films de la Passerelle (in Belgium)/RTBF (Belgium Television)/Produce+ production with the participation of Frame 2 in association with Channel 4/CBC (in Canada). Produced by Christine Le Goff, Arnie Gelbart, Christine Pireaux.

Directed by Peter Chappell, Catherine Peix. Written by Chappell, Stephane Horel. Camera (B&W/color, DV), Peter Krieger, Mark Daniels; editor, Peix; music, Frederic Lagnau. Reviewed on videocassette, New York, April 25, 2004. (In Tribeca Film Festival — competing, and Hot Docs Festival.) Running time: 91 MIN.

(English narration, English, French dialogue)

Docu reopens the explosively controversial subject of the origins of AIDS, zeroing in specifically on the fiercely contested theory that the HIV virus was first transmitted to children in the Belgian Congo via contaminated polio vaccine. Award-winning documentarian Peter Chappell and onetime biologist and veteran filmmaker Catherine Peix follow a convoluted trail that leads from the Royal Society in London to an abandoned laboratory in Zaire. Well-researched expose, including some rare archival newsreel and home movie footage, seems a natural for PBS or cable.

The deadliest disease known to mankind may have been the final legacy of colonialism. In addition, the risks may have been known, that knowledge repressed and scientists, government agencies and the pharmaceutical industry may still be covering up subsequent evidence pointing to the hypothesis.

Journalist/scientist duo Chappell and Peix enter an arena where battle lines between journalists and scientists are fairly clearly drawn. Nonetheless, notable scientific defectors give testimony for the film, chief among them the remarkable Bill Hamilton, who died collecting evidence of a vaccine link.

Filmmakers also include statements by many of the still-surviving major players in the Congo inoculation program (and audio tapes from some deceased players), then penetrate the wilds of Africa to interview native nurses and workers whose memory of what transpired in the ’50s in colonial Leopoldville differs significantly from the official line.

Gung-ho American and Belgian period newsreels, lauding the vaccination program and showing various aspects of the operation, along with snapshots and amateur 16mm footage, record practices which acquire a more sinister significance in hindsight. Increasingly, the docu becomes dominated by the mystery of whether or not oral polio vaccine pioneer Hilary Koprowski (who in selected excerpts, looks and sounds remarkably like Central Casting’s cliched idea of a Nazi) used chimpanzee kidneys to make his CHAT vaccine.

Filmmakers draw no conclusions, but they paint a picture of scientists racing for glory, free to experiment on millions of Third World children while pharmaceutical companies struggle to keep up with demand. Meanwhile, government watchdog agencies ignore the warning signals, all of which constitutes a rather damning indictment.

Unforced flow of images, moving from black-and-white or faded color archival material to more recent present day digital footage and back again works well with the ominous soundtrack, with lengthy excerpts from Phillip Glass for hypnotic emphasis.