Did Vice just produce a special report on AIDS so that Shane Smith could score an interview with George W. Bush?
Now I don’t mean to be cynical (okay, yes I do), but watching Vice’s “Countdown to Zero,” an interesting but fuzzy assortment of segments regarding the current state of AIDS around the world, it feels like the product of a bar bet in which someone challenged the Vice co-founder and CEO that he couldn’t possibly score a sit-down with Bush. But he proved that doubter wrong, and all he had to do was agree to burnish the legacy of the disgraced former president by restricting their conversation to fawning, criticism-free discussion of PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), Bush’s program to address the AIDS epidemic in Africa, primarily by funding the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs in participating countries.
No one can dispute that PEPFAR has done an incredible amount of good, including the reduction of mother-to-child HIV transmission in Rwanda to almost zero (a fact which this report prominently features), which this report features heavily. Bush unquestionably deserves major accolades (as does Bono, who is also interviewed) for developing the program and pushing it through Congress. But PEPFAR has been the subject of numerous controversies, none of which is given voice in “Countdown to Zero.” Under Bush, PEPFAR had a number of counterproductive moralistic requirements, such as requiring a third of the funding allocated for prevention to be spent on abstinence-only education. And countries could not even qualify for PEPFAR unless they agreed to an anti-prostitution pledge. Additionally, much of PEPFAR funding has gone to faith-based groups, many of which have an explicitly anti-gay agenda that is clearly at odds with AIDS education.
Rather than asking Bush about these issues (or, indeed, including any criticism of PEPFAR in its report whatsoever), Smith instead asks fawning questions like “Is this a side of George W. Bush most people don’t know?” The superficiality of the PEPFAR segment is a symptom of Vice’s recent shift toward access journalism, as well as the breadth-over-depth style, which has long been a feature of Vice’s journalism, particularly its video content.
“Countdown to Zero” opens with a montage condensing the history of AIDS into a few minutes. (This is ground that was expertly covered in the exceptional documentary “How to Survive a Plague” a few years back.) From there, we move through six distinct segments in under 50 minutes, ranging from research on a possible cure to South African AIDS denialism to an update on current American AIDS activism. This material is engaging enough, but it is never satisfactorily tied together, it is difficult to keep the timeline straight, and Vice simply lacks the patience and skill to make any of the science comprehensible to the layman.
The report’s opening segment, however, is vintage Vice. A woman in Austin, Indiana, shoots up heroin before the camera as her child cries in the background. She talks to Suroosh Alvi (another Vice co-founder) about sharing dirty needles with dozens of fellow addicts, a common practice in Austin that has set off an AIDS epidemic in the town. After some reluctance, the local police department agrees to treat the problem by distributing clean needles. This is Vice at its finest, tackling a difficult, unpleasant subject from a shocking yet sensitive perspective.
But here’s the thing. Under Bush, PEPFAR prohibited U.S. money from going toward the funding of needle exchange programs. And, once again, this fact is never mentioned in Vice’s report. “Countdown to Zero” is so disjointed that its individual segments aren’t even talking to each other on the most basic level.
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