(UR) New York City — On March 26 Robert De Niro, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, publicly stated that a controversial anti-vaccination documentary — Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe — would be pulled from this year’s lineup.
The film, which purports to have evidence from a whistleblower proving fraud at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, makes a case for a connection between vaccines and autism.
Much of the controversy surrounds Andrew Wakefield, the film’s writer and director. Wakefield, a longtime anti-vaccination activist, is a former doctor and medical researcher whose license was stripped in 2010 amid accusations of, among other things, ethical violations.
Wakefield’s name is well-known to those keeping track of the vaccination debate, and when it was announced on March 25 that Tribeca would be screening his film at this year’s festival, it didn’t take long for the media backlash to erupt.
Dr. William Schaffner, professor at Vanderbilt University Medical School, told the New York Times:
“The people who put on the Tribeca Film Festival are very prestigious and they draw a very thoughtful audience, and it’s implicit that if they have suggested this film they think that there’s some merit in it, and more importantly, merit to Wakefield’s message.”
Documentarian Penny Lane, in an open letter to Filmmaker Magazine, stated that the inclusion of Vaxxed in Tribeca’s lineup“threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers in your doc slate, but the field in general.”
In response to the negative reactions, De Niro — the father of an autistic child — initially defended the decision to screen the documentary. In a statement released on March 25, De Niro said he and his wife “believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined.”
But by Saturday the actor was thinking differently. In a statement released through the festival he said:
“My intent with screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the last few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”
Wakefield and the Vaxxed filmmakers didn’t take the decision lying down. In a statement given to Deadline Hollywood, they claim that“We have just witnessed yet another example of the power of corporate interests censoring free speech, art, and truth.”
But Jeremy Gerard of Deadline Hollywood isn’t sold on this as a case of censorship. He noted that nowhere in Wakefield’s statement did it “address how Vaxxed was being censored by losing its platform at TFF. No effort is being made to keep the film out of the marketplace.”
It’s a valid point. Is this censorship or simply a film festival, after further review, altering its lineup? Maybe De Niro and company didn’t really know what they had until they watched it, and once they did they decided to pass. They certainly reserve that right.
Or maybe De Niro caved. Maybe he — as someone with a “deeply personal” connection to this issue — was trying to open up dialogue, felt the heat, and buckled under the pressure.
Whether this was censorship or not, there was clear and undeniable pressure on Tribeca to act. So if nothing else, this episode highlights the passion and determination on both sides of the controversial issue of vaccines.
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