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Tribeca Film Festival under fire for anti-vaccine documentary

Update: Robert De Niro released a statement Saturday saying the film has been removed from the lineup of the Tribeca Film Festival. After reviewing it with Tribeca organizers, he said, "We do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for." Read more.

The Tribeca Film Festival is being hit by a growing backlash after announcing the screening of a movie from the discredited leader of the anti-vaccination movement next month.

"Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe" claims to dig into the "long-debated link between autism and vaccines" and "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," according to the festival's website.

Film festival organizers have also scheduled a public discussion featuring the creators and subjects of the film after the screening on April 24.

What the film's description doesn't say is that its director, Andrew Wakefield, is widely regarded as a fraud in the scientific community.


Wakefield -- a former doctor who's been stripped of his medical license -- first made headlines with a 1998 study published in The Lancet that claimed the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. His research was found to be based on fraudulent data and the journal later retracted the study.

Decades of medical research from around the world has found no evidence that children who get vaccinated are any more likely to develop autism.

Still, Wakefield's claims sparked a small but vocal faction of parents who continue to refuse to vaccinate their children, leading to multiple measles outbreaks in the U.S. and the U.K. -- a disease that had been largely eradicated in developed countries thanks to vaccines.

The film appears to center around claims from "CDC whistleblower" William H. Thompson, a scientist who told Brian Hooker, a bioengineer and anti-vaccine crusader, that the CDC manipulated data in a 2004 study that found no link between vaccines and autism.

Hooker then used a variety of statistical techniques that have been widely questioned by other scientists to "reanalyze" the data, and claimed to discover an association between the MMR vaccine and autism in African-American boys. The paper was criticized and retracted from the journal that published it.

The Tribeca Film Festival, which was co-founded by Robert De Niro, features both high-profile movies and a variety of film-related events in New York City each spring. When word got out that it would be featuring "Vaxxed," many questioned the festival's decision to give the anti-vax movement a platform.

Columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote in the L.A. Times: "Careless actions such as those of the Tribeca Film Festival don't contribute to 'dialogue and discussion,' as the festival's PR would have it; they just spread misinformation and pseudoscience and undermine public health. No one would say that Wakefield's film should be suppressed. But the question is whether it deserves to be shown under the imprimatur of a respected cultural institution -- or if that institution, the Tribeca festival, is sullying its own reputation by giving Wakefield a platform."

The science blog Respectful Insolence, which has written extensively about Wakefield, described the trailer as "a greatest hits of 'CDC Whistleblower' nonsense," and asked the question, "How on earth did this documentary full of antivaccine lies... get into Tribeca?"

Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane, a two-time Tribeca Film Institute grant recipient whose most recent film, "NUTS!" about a Depression-era doctor who claimed to cure impotence with goat testicle transplants premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, wrote an open letter to Tribeca on the issue.

"Tribeca Film Festival, I love you but you made a very serious mistake," wrote Lane (who noted that she herself "spent eight years making a film about a quack"). "...Very possibly, some people will walk away from your festival having been convinced, in part because of your good name and the excellence and integrity of your documentary programming, not to vaccinate their children. And very possibly people will die as a result."

De Niro released a statement Friday afternoon defending the screening and the need to discuss "all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism" -- a problem that affects his own family:

"Grace 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. 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."

In a statement to the L.A. Times, a spokeswoman for the festival said: "Tribeca, as most film festivals, are about dialogue and discussion. Over the years we have presented many films from opposing sides of an issue. We are a forum, not a judge."

This explanation did not sit well with those criticizing the decision to screen the film.

"Here is the problem with your statement: it assumes that Vaxxed is just like any other film taking on an unpopular, controversial or provocative subject. It is not," Lane wrote. "There is a big difference between advocacy and fraud, between point of view and deception. For you to claim there is no difference helps to perpetuate Wakefield's fraud."

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