Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro today took direct responsibility for the fest’s world-premiere screening of "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up To Catastrophe," a documentary about a purported link between the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine and an uptick in autism. That claim has been widely discredited in the medical community.
The controversy has provoked angry confrontations between those convinced of a conspiracy to cover-up the “truth” about the vaccine’s potential for irreversible damage and those who insist that no such link exists and that denying children the vaccination puts an enormous population at grave risk. Giving the film a major platform, they say, legitimizes a “debate” where none exists. Today’s statement from De Niro fanned the flames already surrounding the scheduled screening next month.
De Niro and his wife, Grace Hightower, “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 said in a statement distributed by the TFF Friday afternoon. “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.
It’s precisely that “conversation” that has drawn fire, however, from critics of the anti-vaccination movement in general and "Vaxxed" in particular. The film is directed by Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist who first asserted the link in 1998 in a study based on 12 patients. Subsequent to its publication, Wakefield’s work was disavowed by "The Lancet", the prestigious medical journal that first gave weight to his argument. After further investigation, Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. Later studies dismissed the idea of a link between MMR and autism, while the medical establishment responded emphatically that denying children the vaccine put the whole population at risk of contracting childhood diseases that had been all but erased.
“Andrew Wakefield has become one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, blamed directly and indirectly, depending on the accuser, for irresponsibly starting a panic with tragic repercussions: vaccination rates so low that childhood diseases once all but eradicated here whooping cough and measles, among them have re-emerged, endangering young lives,” The New York Times reported in a 2011 profile.
Yet the TFF promotional material could easily be taken to endorse Wakefield’s cause. “Digging into 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.” Also this: “The most vitriolic debate in medical history takes a dramatic turn when senior-scientist-turned-whistleblower Dr. William Thompson of the Centers for Disease Control turns over secret documents, data and internal emails confirming what millions of devastated parents and ‘discredited’ doctors have long-suspected.”
Penny Lane, a documentary filmmaker with strong links to the TFF and an interest in quack doctors (“NUTS!” about a Depression-era doctor who usedgoat testicle transplants to “cure” impotence, was shown at the Sundance Film Festival), released an open letter to Tribeca on the issue.
“Tribeca Film Festival, I love you but you made a very serious mistake,” Lane wrote. “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.”
As of this writing, "Vaxxed" is scheduled to have its world premiere at the TFF on April 24, followed by a public discussion with the creators and subjects of the film after the screening.
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