The organisers of a leading independent film festival have decided not to screen a documentary this weekend that denies the existence of HIV/AIDS and disputes the efficacy of HIV medication, following a request by BuzzFeed News to comment on their decision to show the film.
One of the organisers of the Portobello Film Festival, which includes Kensington and Chelsea borough council among its sponsors, initially told BuzzFeed News that they were intent on screening Positive Hell because their agenda is to provide "a platform for filmmakers".
But in a further statement two hours later, Jonathan Barnett, on behalf of the festival, said: "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."
Described by The Independent as "the biggest celebration of independent film in Europe", the festival, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, shows over 700 films and attracts a wealth of leading directors.
Joan Shenton, the film's author and narrator, told BuzzFeed News she was "furious" about the decision, which she said was "based on absolute ignorance", and claimed the decision came as a result of "pressure from the pharmaceutical industry-funded AIDS charity, I'm guessing". She confirmed to BuzzFeed News that she has no medical training.
Earlier this year, the London Independent Film Festival also decided not to show the film after receiving letters protesting against the planned screening.
Positive Hell features five Spanish people who claim that they tested positive for HIV, have refused conventional treatment – antiretrovirals – and are now in perfectly good health.
Since the film was made in 2014, one of the participants has died.
Another interviewee, Manuel Garrido Sotelo, who is a doctor, claims that his own profession is mistaken about HIV/AIDS. "This is all a fraud," he says. "You shouldn't take any notice of the prognoses...nor of the diagnoses... The tests don't count for anything. Nor of the drug treatments because the majority are toxic."
A further participant describes his former illicit drug use, including heroin and amphetamines, before detailing his refusal to take antiretrovirals. "I'm not going to die poisoned by pills," he says.
Shenton has written a book also denying that the medical profession's assertions about HIV/AIDS are correct, and denying that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. In the film, she begins by asking of the participants, "Were they the victims of a colossal, medical, and scientific blunder?"
Shenton's voiceover also says that HIV-positive test results can be caused by "intravenous drug use" and "pregnancy". She adds at the end of the film that the interviewees have "been duped" by the medical profession and that by still being alive and well they have "proved the orthodox position wrong".
When asked by BuzzFeed News what her medical training was Shenton replied: "I'm a medical journalist, I have been for 30 years. I work reflecting the views of the scientists whose position is that the science behind AIDS is wrong. I am a messenger. I am Hermes."
Shenton added that "there is no virus. I deny that HIV has ever been isolated." When BuzzFeed News said the scientists who isolated the HIV virus in 1983 were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, Shenton responded: "Well yes but what does that mean?"
She denied that there are 35 million people in the world living with HIV, adding, "If you agree with those statistics then you are absolutely mad." And Shenton reiterated her belief that pregnancy can cause an HIV-positive test result.
Dr Michael Brady, medical director at Terrence Higgins Trust, told BuzzFeed News: “In the 30 years since the HIV epidemic began incredible medical progress has been made. People living with HIV who are on effective treatment can now live long and healthy lives and be confident they won’t pass the virus on to others.
“However, the impact of myths and false information about HIV cannot be underestimated. Myths and misconceptions are known to stop people from getting tested, accessing care, and taking effective treatment. This will inevitably cause them to become seriously ill or even die and to pass the virus on to others unnecessarily. This potentially has a huge impact not only on the health of individuals but also on public health in the UK."
Gus Cairns, editor of the National Aids Manual (NAM) and a psychotherapist, said the numbers of people who deny the medical establishment's evidence surrounding HIV is "fairly small these days, mainly because of the obvious success of HIV therapy".
"It all springs from the early days when people were seeking alternative explanations," said Cairns. "But a few people never let go of that position. I knew a lot of the prominent AIDS denialists in the 1990s and the ones that never changed their minds are all dead."
He added: "The reason I'm still so concerned about this is that often newly diagnosed people are very vulnerable to this – they want to hear that it's all a myth." As a result, he said, "they stop taking treatment. It's very dangerous. AIDS denialism kills."
A spokesperson for Kensington and Chelsea borough council said in a statement that the council this year provided the Portobello Film Festival with £4,000 of funding.