Feature Documentary Reviews

The Cost of Silence (2021) – Unrated

Director: Huw Christi

Running time: 1hr 22mins

I’ve reviewed conspiracy films on Indy Film Library before – and from that I’ve learned there isn’t a lot of point going into the nitty-gritty of things. There can be centuries of evidence confirming that William Shakespeare really did write his plays, while theories to the contrary could be debunked as classist propaganda from all angles, and the filmmaker will simply double down, bellowing that TWO SUPREME COURT JUSTICES CAN’T BE WRONG!

Huw Christi doesn’t even have that lofty calibre of charlatan to vouch for the theories peddled by his film though. No, The Cost of Silence hinges on “the protocols developed by Doctor [sic] Gary Null”.

In actuality, Null is an American talk radio host and author – two elite specialist fields in their own right – whose alleged doctorate in human nutrition and public health sciences comes from a private distance-learning college headquartered in Ohio. Investigative journalist Stephen Barrett has since expressed sharp scepticism on the quality of the PhD thesis that saw Null obtain that title – but the man’s on talk radio, Goddamn it. With or without credentials in healthy eating, I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to lethal diseases.

The lethal disease in this case is AIDS, specifically in the first decades of the pandemic. Null (who almost inevitably also holds that hallmark of the shyster – an associate degree in business administration) is an HIV denialist. At the height of the pandemic, he continued to assert theories that the role HIV played in patients developing AIDS had been exaggerated – something which is not only thoroughly discredited, but led to his stance being compared to Holocaust denial. Predictably, this is something the film depending on his ‘expertise’ shies away from – but it does double down on another of his assertions: that there are purely ‘diet-based treatments’ that can ‘reverse’ AIDS.

A series of rambling talking head sequences follow – something of a calling card for conspiracy cinema. Nobody knows how to edit, or understands why your audience might want you to. After all, this is all so interesting. So, we are subjected to a meandering line of testimony from former practitioners and silhouetted witnesses. From a cinematic standpoint, it is little short of excruciating.

From the perspective of making an argument, meanwhile, it is often hypocritical to the point of self-parody. None of this occurred for fame or profit, we are reassured – while Null continues to make regular media appearances and sell hundreds of thousands of books. Meanwhile, without being able to see anything for ourselves, one speaker’s anecdotal evidence recalls how the Tri-state Healing Center (where Null’s method was adopted) took care to detail everything scientifically, because nobody would believe them on purely anecdotal evidence. Well, I’m sold.

But what were these miracle treatments which apparently saw ‘positives turn to negatives’ for people who were recently at death’s door? Null’s regimen saw them hooked up to a Vitamin-C drip. They ate healthily. It’s not exactly revolutionary. People who eat healthily tend to live longer – even when they suffer from a chronic illness (though if you are on certain retroviral treatments, supplementary Vitamin C can be very bad for you). Even then, though, the pointedly vague anecdotal results sound underwhelming.

How many survived the treatment? Some… a few… but still notably not enough to tell us how many of either group of patients there were. The other (presumably greater) number, we were told, died. But that was their fault for not keeping to their bespoke diets, apparently.

This disturbing, cultish adherence to the Null Doctrine (which really should have been what he called it) continues when witnesses recall the celebrity endorsements that came their way in the 1980s. With the world desperate for a solution, and even the rich and famous falling victim to the disease, a number of public figures allegedly visited the facility – though none were suitably moved by what they saw to appear here. In some cases, that is also because they passed away. In one particularly chilling case, tennis player Arthur Ashe is cited as one of these individuals.

Ashe is believed to have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion he received during heart bypass surgery in 1983. He died from AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 49, ten years later. In the intervening period, he allegedly visited the Tri-state Healing Center – but as ‘compelling’ as the evidence there supposedly was, he was too “indoctrinated” by “orthodox medicine” to give the Null Doctrine a shot. And a number of the talking heads are convinced, that is what killed him. If only he hadn’t been too ignorant to sign up for Dr Null’s grape-fruit-enema programme, he’d still be with us.

Amid all this, one question hangs over everything. Where is the esteemed ‘Doctor’ now? All the footage of the man, the myth, the Null himself, is packages of talk show television from forty years ago. But oddly enough, that was when the reactions of the mainstream media and politics were at their least rational, and most harmful, regarding HIV and AIDS.

Sensationalist misinformation was pumped out by the press, capitalising on shock stories at the expense of accuracy that could have saved lives. Public representatives used the fear this caused as an opportunity to persecute and harass communities they already hated – most obviously the LGBT+ community and People of Colour – while completely neglecting their duties to protect the public. While the documentary regularly asserts that this axis has kept ‘alternative medicine’ like that of Null from going ‘mainstream’, it seems Null was actually at the height of his power amid this maelstrom of hateful paranoia. When a panicked middle class were looking for ways to wash their hands of the issue, while also being reassured that everything was fine, suggesting those dying were simply poorly informed people who didn’t eat well proved popular. Imagine that.

In contrast, meanwhile, in a modern world where ‘orthodox’ medicine has advanced to the point where the antiretroviral therapy (ART) demonised by Null helps people with HIV live longer, healthier lives, and reduces the risk of HIV transmission, it’s easy to see why his TV slots might have dried up. With that being said, we cannot be complacent, and we cannot afford to treat this film as a bit of silly crackpot fun. It is supporting the revival of a particularly deadly distrust in medicine that in our present situation is already having horrific consequences.

While the viruses might be different, the similarity of the world depicted in The Cost of Silence to that of the last two years of Covid-19 is ominous. Now, as then, governments and the media have failed in their duties to inform people accurately about a dangerous pandemic, or to legislate for our protection when it was an inconvenience to capital. Now, as then, with any political critique from the left having been stamped out, cynical predatory salesman have filled that void, in order to flog their next best-seller explaining how face-masks cause haemorrhoids, or how injecting bull semen into your eyes can work as an alternative vaccine. And, of course, consistent between both times, these actions come with a terrible human cost.

The cinematic equivalent of temazepam, The Cost of Silence is one of the most inexorably tedious things you will ever have the chance to see. Self-assured in the importance and intrigue of its content, it refuses to cut down on anything, no matter how derivative or tenuously relevant it is. Possibly, this is because like any good snake-oil salesman delivering a Ted Talk, its priority is to pacify critical thought by projecting meandering rhythmic sputum into our frontal lobes for long enough to send us into a fitful coma. But I am not rating the film on that. I am not rating the film at all. Its core aim is to market a refreshed pitch of medical denialism (which some might argue is already responsible for killing quite a few people) during a global pandemic. This is not fit for human consumption, however much orange juice you might neck after viewing.

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