December 1 is World AIDS Day, an occasion to commemorate the estimated 36 million people who have died from the epidemic since it began, as well as an opportunity to offer hope to the 36 million others currently living with the virus.
The Smithsonian Channel will mark the occasion by airing The Rise of the Killer Virus (titled The Bloody Truth internationally). It’s a scientific detective story that traces HIV to its origins in Cameroon circa 1908. The documentary is notable for both the history it uncovers and the massive collaborative effort to produce and broadcast it worldwide on AIDS Day.
Killer Virus analyzes HIV as a form of interspecies transmission (i.e., “zoonoses”), a virus that jumped from animals—chimpanzees, in this case—to humans. Carl Gierstorfer, a Berlin-based filmmaker who earned a BSc in biology from University College, London, directed the film. “I felt this was an important film to do because there are so many conspiracy theories surrounding the origin of HIV,” he says. “There’s been so much misinformation, so much blame on minority groups, but scientists have pieced together the true story in incredible detail. Its time that this story was told.”
The film follows a trio of scientific detectives tracing the historical roots of HIV. The key protagonists are Dirk Teuwen, a Belgian histo-pathologist who’s been involved in the search for HIV’s origins since 2000; Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfun, one of the most renowned scientists in the Democratic Republic of Congo who has worked on the pandemic since the 1980s; and Mike Worobey, a professor for evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona who developed a technique to extract viral RNA from tissue samples. Together their research demonstrates that AIDS is as much an historical and social investigation as a scientific one.
The film argues that HIV is a tragic legacy of European colonial rule in Central Africa at the turn of the 20th century. It describes how the imperialist tyranny inflicted by Belgium and France in, respectively, the Congo and Cameroon returned to devastate the west a century later. Killer Virus literally takes viewers to ground zero, the beleaguered landscape from which HIV/AIDS first emerged.
Antje Boehmert, one of the film’s producers, points out that scientific detective work is not easy. The film crew voyaged to a remote corner of Cameroon bordering Central African Republic. “To go and film scientists collecting chimpanzee droppings you may think is no big deal,” she says, “but due to the dangerous territory, we needed support by the local authorities, which they gave us. Government officials [i.e., military personnel] escorted the director and his crew. All our travels in Central Africa were only possible with the support of the German embassies…and a great fixer.”
Besides being an important historical and archival record, Killer Virus is also an unprecedented programming event that involved three lead producers and four co-producing partners from around the world. According to Boehmert, “The challenge with a co-production this big is that we are dependent on many broadcasters. It could have been difficult and painful, but our main partners were very quick in making decisions. We found them—and it was in the end not too difficult. Our partners were really collaborators.”
Killer Virus ultimately suggests a disturbing connection between HIV/AIDS and the ongoing Ebola crisis. To quote director Carl Gierstorfer: “The virus jumped from animals to humans because we come in ever closer contact with wildlife; Africans consume bushmeat because they often have no other choice; deforestation and habitat fragmentation increase the likelihood of new pathogens crossing the species barrier.”
He also points out that Ebola was made worse by the “late response by the international community, just like during the emergence of HIV. Only when Ebola became a threat to people in Europe and America did politicians and the public wake up to the threat of another pandemic.”
Rise of the Killer Virus airs on the Smithsonian Channel at 8pm on December 1.
DAVID ROSEN regularly contributes to AlterNet, CounterPunch, The Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker, IndieWire, and Salon. His website is DavidRosenWrites.com.