Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro defended the organization’s decision to screen the documentary Vaxxed, an anti-vaccination film, in a statement on Friday.
“Grace [Hightower, De Niro’s wife] and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined,” De Niro wrote in a statement. “In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening Vaxxed. I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.”
Directed by Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who claimed vaccines cause autism and was later stripped of his medical license, Vaxxed, per the description on the Tribeca Film Festival website, focuses on “the long-debated link between autism and vaccines.”
“Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe features revealing and emotional interviews with pharmaceutical insiders, doctors, politicians, parents, and one whistleblower to understand what’s behind the skyrocketing increase of autism diagnoses today,” the description reads.
Wakefield’s report, which was first published in British medical journal The Lancet in 1998, was retracted by the publication in 2010.
“It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation,” read a statement from The Lancet. “In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.”
The Tribeca Film Festival bio for Wakefield mentions the study, but not that it was retracted.
“Andrew Wakefield, MB.BS., is an academic gastroenterologist who practiced medicine at the Royal Free in the U.K. publishing over 140 scientific papers,” the bio reads. “In 1995, he was contacted by parents of autistic children with stomach issues; he learned that these conditions often occurred immediately following an MMR vaccine. In pursuit of this possible link, Dr. Wakefield led an initial study of twelve children with both stomach and developmental issues. The report, published in The Lancet, would catapult Wakefield into becoming one of the most controversial figures in the history of medicine. Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Controversy is his second film.”
After it was announced that Vaxxed would screen at the New York-set festival, critics slammed the decision online. But Tribeca defended the choice, writing on Twitter, “Tribeca is about dialogue & conversation. We present opposing viewpoints without judgement or endorsement.”
“There is a big difference between advocacy and fraud, between point of view and deception. For you to claim there is no difference, and for you to screen this film, perpetuates Wakefield’s fraud,” wrote filmmaker Penny Lane on Facebook in a widely circulated post criticizing the inclusion of Vaxxed in the Tribeca lineup. “A lot of people, including those who buy tickets to see docs at your festival, believe documentary film has become an important form of news. But journalists are expected to tell the truth – or at least not knowingly spread dangerous lies. Your choice to include Vaxxed in your documentary lineup – a lineup including films about abortion, Syrian refugees, solitary confinement, the American electoral system, in-vitro fertilization and drone warfare – suggests that you think documentary filmmakers can’t be held even to the latter standard. This threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers in your doc slate, but the field in general.”