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The strange story behind the most notorious disinformation video of the coronavirus era

Josh Rottenberg and Stacy Perman
Los Angeles Times

When filmmaker Mikki Willis uploaded a 26-minute video called "Plandemic" to the internet on May 4, he knew it was likely to cause a stir.

But Willis didn't bank on becoming the poster boy for coronavirus disinformation. In his mind, he was just a dad in Ojai, California, making low-budget inspirational movies out of his house.

The closest he'd ever come to viral fame was when he posted a video in 2015 to his YouTube channel about how he'd bought his young son a "Little Mermaid" doll at the toy store — a moment of open-minded, nongender-conforming parenting that earned him more than 4 million views and a laudatory spot on the local news.

If you haven't seen "Plandemic," picture the sort of ominous conspiracy theory video that would pop up on your paranoid uncle's Facebook feed or in the darkest recesses of Reddit, then stir in the worst global health crisis in a century.

Slickly produced and shot through with brooding music and black-and-white shots of people walking in slow motion, "Plandemic" centers on Willis' interview with a former molecular biologist named Judy Mikovits, who alleges that a shadowy cabal of scientists and business interests, including the likes of Bill Gates and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, is leveraging the coronavirus crisis to boost their own power and profits.

Presented uncritically as a courageous whistleblower, Mikovits lobs a string of unsubstantiated claims, including that the virus was developed in laboratories in China and the U.S., that health officials are deliberately inflating COVID-19 statistics and, most dangerously, that wearing a mask could increase one's chances of "getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expression."

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"Plandemic," which was billed as the first installment in a larger documentary to be released this summer, quickly racked up more than 8 million views.

On May 6, in an effort to tamp down the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, YouTube and Facebook pulled down Willis' video. "Suggesting that wearing a mask can make you sick could lead to imminent harm so we've removed the video," a Facebook representative said.

"Plandemic" was lambasted as the latest manifestation of a toxic internet fever swamp that breeds irrational fantasies and rampant pseudoscience. But community spread had already set in.

In recent days, "Plandemic" has continued to circulate among a receptive group of vaccine skeptics, right-wing media and conspiracy theorists of every stripe, signal-boosting nefarious narratives about the pandemic among pro-Trump lockdown opponents and anti-Chinese-government outlets like the Epoch Times.

"We made the video to go viral," Willis said over FaceTime earlier this week from his home in the Ojai Valley, where he lives with his wife and business partner, Nadia Salamanca, and their two sons. "We knew the branding was conspiratorial and shocking. Unfortunately, in this age, you kind of have to be that to get people's attention. But that it would go viral to this degree, I don't think anyone could project."

An image from an electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists say this version of the coronavirus has mutated and become more contagious.

Since the video's release, Mikovits' checkered history in the scientific community has been widely reported and her claims have been extensively debunked, while Willis himself has faced a barrage of intense criticism. But speaking to The Times, the 52-year-old filmmaker sounded unbowed.

"I have been out front enough and public enough to know that when you say anything controversial, especially on any of these hot-button subjects, you have to be willing to take the heat," he said. "And of course there's been tons of it. I've just been navigating all of that."

Following the controversy, Willis says he has been in contact with numerous doctors, some strongly disputing Mikovits' views and others lending them credence. He plans to release a response video to present a fuller picture of Mikovits and the science she presents.

"We're working very hard right now to validate the majority of the claims that were made," he said. "Instead of just defending all of the haters that are out there, I think it's just better to reach back out with some valid information. ... Because of the delicacy and importance of the situation, I really wanted to talk with doctors on all sides first — not just the doctors that Judy recommends, but I'm going to seek out the ones who disagree and get them on the phone and find out why."

Despite what many assume, Willis insists he is not a member of "the anti-vaccine crowd" — a group that over the years has included a number of prominent Hollywood celebrities. "I have a profound love and respect of doctors despite how many doctors are mad at me now," he said.

Though many have speculated about the forces behind "Plandemic," Willis says he paid for the film himself and was motivated by his own worries about vaccine safety and what he sees as the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry, concerns he traces back to the deaths of his brother from AIDS and his mother from cancer when he was in his 20s, which he believes were hastened by harmful medical treatments.

Willis says he met Mikovits, who has a high profile in the anti-vaccine movement, a year ago through mutual friends and was impressed by her. When news surrounding the pandemic began to grow increasingly alarming, he felt "there were just so many things that didn't add up." He reached out to Mikovits to get her scientific opinion and ended up asking her if she would do a sit-down interview. (Mikovits did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

"There was zero funding," Willis said. "I paid for a camera operator, and I paid for a researcher to find some of the videos that validated her story. And I just put it together myself." The total cost of the film, he says, came to less than $2,000. Willis polled his Facebook followers on what the title should be. (The runners-up were "The Invisible Enemy" and "The Oath.")

After speaking with Mikovits, Willis says he ran some of her views past other medical experts. "I did do my best to reach out to people to say, 'She's making some claims here, and can you validate this?'" he said. "And the ones that they couldn't validate, or at least were left with 'that could be true, but science hasn't proven it yet,' I left it in. Because I figured, perhaps this starts the conversation that does actually get to the bottom of this point."

Willis' path to internet notoriety has been an unlikely one. A former model and actor, he says his life was changed by 9/11, when he helped first responders in downtown New York.

"I had a profound experience on the rubble of the World Trade Center that led me to leave my traditional work in Hollywood and to do the best I could to film events and people and ideas that make the world a better place," he said.

Inspired to remake his career, he founded the production company Elevate Films with Salamanca, specializing in projects with an uplifting New Age bent.

Willis' own filmography has been all over the map. He made his feature debut in 2000 with the low-budget indie comedy "Shoe Shine Boys," which the LA Times praised as "an acid comment on the all-American hunger for fame." He said he worked as a videographer in support of Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign and performed a similar role last year for Tulsi Gabbard. He has worked on yoga and meditation videos and, according to IMDB, co-directed a concert movie for DJ Steve Aoki.

The website of Elevate Films showcases a documentary about the healing power of psychedelics, a commercial for the Nevada Board of Tourism and a PSA about composting featuring Rosario Dawson, as well as a trailer for a yet-to-be-released crowdfunded documentary about a man who found a supposedly cursed bone in an ancient Mayan burial chamber and was diagnosed months later with bone cancer.

Some of Willis' own claims are difficult to corroborate. In 2006, he and Salamanca co-founded the nonprofit Elevate Foundation to help boost filmmakers making a positive impact on the world, and under its auspices the two mounted a series of film festivals.

On publicly available financial documents, the foundation listed among its unpaid board of directors spiritual leader Michael Beckwith, who heads the nondenominational Agape International Spiritual Center in Los Angeles, and prominent yoga teacher and author Shiva Rea.

But reached by The Times, Rea said that while she considers Willis and Salamanca friends and served as an emcee at the 2008 Elevate Film Festival, she was unaware her name had been used in connection with their foundation. Asked about "Plandemic," she said she heard about the film on social media and found it "very disturbing."

Beckwith, with whom Willis made the 2009 self-help DVD "Spiritual Liberation: Fulfilling Your Soul's Potential," did not respond to a request for comment. Willis says he and Salamanca are in the process of closing down the Elevate Foundation.

"We barely raised any money through it, yet every year we had to deal with deal with all the taxes and scrutiny that comes with having a 501(c)(3)," he said.

In the wake of the release of "Plandemic," Willis says he was contacted by — and rebuffed — an independent producer who has made projects with HBO, Netflix and Amazon about a potential deal to try to release the project on one of those platforms. ("It was a good friend's brother.") Individuals familiar with the acquisition pipeline at HBO and Amazon said that the companies had not expressed interest in the film.

At this point, Willis says he is unsure if he will follow through with a full-length "Plandemic" documentary. "I'm open to the possibility that we just release information as it comes," he said.

To some, Willis is the internet's latest villain; to others, he may come across as a fearless truth-teller. But as he sees it, he is simply offering a necessary alternative to what he calls "the mainstream narrative." "Even though people are making up crazy things about me online, thankfully I have a lot of people who've known me for years who are doing their best to defend those claims," he said.

Willis says he and Salamanca have had their share of struggles, including losing their home in the 2017 Thomas fire. But despite any possible interest in monetizing what he has tapped into with "Plandemic," he insists that he won't make a dime off the film.

"To date, everything has been out of my pocket," he said. "I will reach a point — and it's coming to that right now — where I'll have to get some small donations from some friends who care that are close to me. But I will not sell or profit from this film in any way. I've always gotten by on a shoestring. It's just the way I operate. I trust that we'll have what we need when we need it."