Positive Hell

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”90233″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]About Positive Hell

Positive Hell is a 30-minute documentary that tells the stories of five Spanish people, living in northern Spain, who tested positive for HIV in the late 80s who, defying the overwhelming medical consensus, chose not to take medication, or took it for a short period of time and then stopped.  Although one of the protagonists dies before the film is finished, he had lived for 27 years without HIV medication, and his testimony alongside the others maintains that their decision was life-enhancing and not life-threatening. The premise of the film is that the widely-accepted scientific approach to prognosis, diagnosis and treatment is wrong and that the drug companies “are the only beneficiaries” to the current approach to AIDS treatment.

The film – written and narrated by Joan Shenton of Meditel Productions was co-produced with the film’s director Andi Reiss of Yellow Entertainment – has been screened at many festivals around the world and was nominated for best film at the Marbella Film Festival.

In 2016, two planned London screenings of the film were pulled – by the London Independent Film Festival (LIFF) and the Portobello Film Festival (PFF). A third screening was pulled by Bluestockings Bookstore in New York and so outside the UK scope of Index on Censorship’s Art and Offence programme. In all three cases, cancellation of the planned screening came following public pressure and pressure from campaigning groups and science professionals.

The cancellations

The two cancellations in London followed a similar pattern: the film was accepted, programmed and advertised as part of a forthcoming festival programme.  Within days of going public, the directors of the film festivals received letters from leading AIDS charities asking the film be pulled. The directors of the film festivals then wrote to the producers of the film, informing them that the film would no longer be part of the festival.

Positive Hell was due to be screened at London Independent Film Festival on 17 April 2016 and was cancelled the previous week.  Portobello Film Festival was due to be screened on 12 September 2016 and was cancelled on 8 September.

Shenton contacted Index following the second cancellation of the film, to see if Index could help find out further information about why the films were pulled from the festivals. Index suggested that a Freedom of Information request could be made to Kensington Council, which was one of the funders of the Portobello Film Festival. The response to the FOI request outlined the reasons for cancelling the film, which the director had already conveyed in previous emails to Shenton and which are outlined below.

In researching this case study, Index wrote to the National Aids Trust and Terrence Higgins Trust, the two charities named in correspondence with LIFF (see below), asking them for access to the letters they sent to the festival directors. Index received, by return, a copy of the letter sent to Erich Schultz, director of LIFF, by Deborah Gold, Chief Executive of National Aids Trust.  

Gold wrote: “The film proposes that the origin and nature of HIV and AIDS are up for debate and that is simply not true. There is 30 years of worldwide, respected research showing exactly how HIV works in the body and how it is contracted – as well as irrefutable evidence that without medication it will lead to AIDS. …Denying this basic truth about HIV and AIDS kills people.“

She ends: “Giving a platform to people who spread these abhorrent and dangerous views is incredibly irresponsible. I urge you to withdraw the screening of this film as a matter of urgency.“

The Terence Higgins Trust did not reply.

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Guides to the law on free expression and the arts in England and Wales

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index also wrote to both festival directors inviting them to discuss their reasons for pulling the film. Eric Schultz, director of LIFF did not reply. However, Shenton shared email correspondence in which Schultz indicated “two more major HIV/AIDS organisations” had contacted him urging him not to screen the film and “warning of protests to LIFF, the screening venue and the festival’s sponsors” if they failed to comply. Schultz said he had also received over twenty protest letters, including one from a LGBT society at the university where Schultz teaches and where the festival’s student advisory board is based.

The decision by Portobello Film festival to screen the film was condemned in an article by Buzzfeed LGBT editor Patrick Strudwick published on September 7, a day before the cancellation of the film was announced.

The Buzzfeed article brought together a range of voices that support the medical consensus on HIV and AIDS.  In the article, Jonathan Barnett – director of the Portobello Film Festival – is quoted as saying: “We believe passionately in freedom of speech and expression, but clearly have no desire to create any distress. However in the spirit of not causing upset and as a people’s festival that is responsive to feedback from the public we have decided to pull the film.”

In reply to our approach, Barnett provided Index with a brief summary about the cancellation by email.

“The Festival has been going for 21 years. We are a free festival. We do not charge for film selection or submission, or entry to any of our events. We pulled the film due to concerns expressed to us and articulated in the attached Buzzfeed article. We invited Ms Shenton to the Festival where she gave a speech and distributed flyers… I hope we were responsible in not screening the film in case of the possible distress it could cause to Aids sufferers. Both Terrance Higgins and NAT, who might fairly be regarded as experts in this field, regard the film as unhelpful.”

Barnett told Index he was unaware of the controversial nature of the film when it was originally chosen for the festival. He stressed that although the festival decided to drop the film he did offer Shenton a chance to speak publicly about it, which she took up.

Barnett said the festival listened to the concerns of AIDS charities. “It is the view of AIDS charities and doctors that HIV/AIDS denial is a movement which has real and deadly repercussions for people living with HIV who then believe that they can stop anti-retrovirals and survive,” he told Index via email. “This also leads to ongoing transmissions fuelling the epidemic. There is overwhelming evidence, in the UK and worldwide, of tragedy that HIV/AIDS denial costs. When this was pointed out to us we pulled the film. No action, protest or otherwise, was threatened.”

Other opposition to the film

In February 2015, the filmmakers privately hired the London Frontline Club (FLC) for an invite-only launch of the film and the self-publishing of an updated copy of Shenton’s book Positively False. Although the Frontline Club was criticised for hosting the screening at their premises in Paddington, London, it went ahead without incident.

On this occasion, the pressure to cancel the event came from science writers Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre. Singh tweeted: “Is FLC smart enough to admit error + cancel? RT @bengoldacre: Shame on you @frontlineclub promoting AID denialism. https://www.pressdispensary.co.uk/releases/c993891/preview.html …”.

Index wrote to Singh asking him why, at the time, he thought that Frontline Club should cancel the film. He gave a detailed response, concluding:

“Clearly, it is not up to me to ban films, and nor would I want such power, but instead I was merely offering information and stressing that I thought they were doing the wrong thing by hosting the film. As a journalist, I think that I was making it clear that my opinion of the Frontline Club would fall if they were to go ahead with a policy of, essentially, taking money to screen any film regardless of the quality or accuracy. And I think many other science and health journalists would have felt the same.”

Shenton argues that by cancelling the film screenings, the five protagonists have been denied their voice and their experience has been invalidated.

“The film describes the agonies of being labelled as ‘HIV positive’ and poses these questions:  just how reliable are the regular tests and diagnoses for HIV and how essential is it for everyone found HIV-positive to submit unquestioningly to a possible lifetime regime of antiretroviral drugs. The film’s protagonists made their own decisions not to take the HIV treatments offered and have lived healthy lives for almost three decades.”

A screening of the film was also cancelled at a bookstore in New York in 2016 although the film has been screened at other festivals, including the Queen’s World Film Festival in New York in March 2017 where it was awarded a special jury prize.

For more information about the issues and guidance for screening, displaying and mounting of controversial work and freedom of expression, please see our Art and Offence guidelines.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1494248689291-0c39a0ce-fa9d-5″ taxonomies=”8883″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Simon Singh v the BCA – What next?

A spectre is haunting London, and it is the spectre of unreason. The doubters have huddled underground in a crowded tavern, purveying dangerous ideas and thoughts. They are hardy souls, men and women, nursing their drinks, plotting to overthrow blind faith, within yards of the courts of justice where a bewigged man interprets the Queen’s edict in a way so narrow as to protect the fair name of good people and evil, silencing the ones who dare to speak truth to power, chilling those who have not yet thought subversive thoughts. A hushed silence prevails, clamping down reason and argument. The rest is silence.

Except that we are in the London of the 21st century, the global city, and the tavern is a pub in central London, where the courageous journalist and author, Simon Singh and his supporters are debating what to do next, after Mr Justice Eady’s reading in the case filed against him by the British Chiropractors’ Association (BCA), allowing the association to proceed in its libel claim against Singh.

Singh wrote an article over a year ago in the Guardian, in which he challenged the BCA’s promotion of chiropractic treatment for asthma and ear infections among children. The chiropractors decided to sue. He had two options –– to apologise and give in, or to fight. He chose to fight.

Singh is a distinguished science writer. His books include Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, and appropriately enough, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. Science rests on testing hypotheses; claims are challenged; and if those challenged claims are not refuted, the theory falls. If not, we learn new ways of understanding our world. Instead of challenging Singh with arguments, the British Chiropractic Association went to court, as if courts can determine the effectiveness of treatments, or the harms they pose.

As the meeting organised by blogger Jack of Kent and hosted by the Skeptics in London revealed, the matter got more complicated when Mr Justice Eady made an “astonishing and illiberal” ruling, defining the meaning that should be given to the passage the chiropractors found offensive. Singh had described claims made for chiropracti as “bogus”. He ruled that even if what Singh had written was an opinion piece in his interpretation it was a statement of fact. And by using that word which he explained, meant “deliberate and targeted dishonesty,” Singh was asserting that the association was being dishonest.

That’s not what Singh was getting at. But that’s how the judge interpreted it, leaving Singh three options: to go to trial, to settle or to appeal. Last night, Singh was unable to declare what he would do, but his instinct – and the overwhelming view in the pub – was that he should appeal. And he was not alone.

The scientific skeptic James Randi called for support for the quest for justice, saying the case has the chilling effect on the ability to question claims of anyone, including pseudoscientists. Dave Morris, the co-defendant in the famous McLibel trial said in a message read, that the law must be opposed because it unfairly protects against fair criticism.

Ben Goldacre, who knows a thing or two about bad science, said in a message read out to his “brothers and sisters in nerdiness”, that ideas and practices are proved only when they are challenged. He criticised the alternative medicine community’s intolerance of criticism. The comedian Dave Gorman said that to question ideas is the basis of the human condition. “This affects all of us,” he said to loud cheers.

Nick Cohen gave a fascinating exposure of Britain’s restrictive libel laws, which prevent criticism because the onus is placed on the defendant, and not the plaintiff. He added that libel is mean to protect good character; the people who have exploited English law to defend themselves include Russian oligarchs, people accused of having aided and abetted Al Qaeda, and fugitive film-makers. Making a fervent plea for US-style freedom of expression, where the plaintiff has to prove malice, he pointed out how shameful it is that the United States is enacting legislation specifically protecting American authors from British libel laws. “English law is claiming global jurisdiction through the Internet; people on the edge of respectability are using the law to silence their critics. Those with money and vindictiveness are filing suits. Britain should not be liberty’s enemy,” he added.

Dr Evan Harris MP
, seriously questioned the NHS accepting certain homoeopathic claims, and called for evidence-based science, to prevent “the creeping exploitation of vulnerable population”.

Singh feels hugely uplifted by the enthusiastic support he has received. Last night, there were queues of people –– readers, bloggers, science writers, and campaigners for free expression –– willing to help. They want to raise funds, they want to write to their MPs to change Britain’s restrictive law, and they want to post letters. A child sent two pounds with her love.

Singh needs, and deserves, the support of all of us, who wish to reclaim the space for free thought; who want to wrest reason from the clutches of faith; who want to expand the notion of freedom on this sceptred isle; who would like those who have a grievance to prove their case and not force those who have said something to have to establish their innocence. And why? So that we are guided by chemistry and not alchemy; astronomy and not astrology; healing through science and not faith.

Science may not have all the answers yet. But rational minds ask the right questions. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in Lebden des Galile (The Life of Galileo). “The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.”

Defending Singh is another step in the ongoing battle to change our libel laws.