(Edited to Update: Tribeca Film Festival announced on March 26th they reviewed the film after the backlash and subsequently pulled it from the festival. Mr. Deniro said: “My intent in 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 past 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.”
The information in this post is still important, not only as a record of what occurred, but also because Mr. Wakefield will undoubtedly attempt to continue claiming there is a link between vaccines and autism despite his claims being thoroughly debunked.)
Tribeca Film Festival recently announced it will be screening a film from Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor from England who released a now retracted study claiming a link between vaccines and autism. This “documentary” film, and I use that in the loosest term of the word, is titled ‘Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe’ and in it he attempts to further claim the debunked connection between autism and vaccines. The trailer, which is available on Youtube, attempts to frame the information he provides as some type of breaking conspiracy, when in fact it has been thoroughly debunked. Wakefield says in the trailer: “Right now I am sitting in a very pretty position in terms of providing you a lot of information.” To me, the trailer seems to frame the film as if it is coming from an outside perspective, when in actuality it’s directed by Wakefield himself.
Wakefield created a study which is now discredited. Because of this, I have a serious issue trusting any more information coming from him, especially more information claiming the same link between autism and vaccines which was entirely debunked and caused him to lose his medical license. From CNN:
“”A now-retracted British study that linked autism to childhood vaccines was an “elaborate fraud” that has done long-lasting damage to public health, a leading medical publication reported Wednesday.
An investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study’s author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study — and that there was “no doubt” Wakefield was responsible.
“It’s one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors,” Fiona Godlee, BMJ’s editor-in-chief, told CNN. “But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data.”
Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license in May. “Meanwhile, the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession,” BMJ states in an editorial accompanying the work.””
The article goes on to say that after the study was released there was a decline in the number of parents vaccinating their children. This is not simply an issue of presenting a point of view, as Tribeca and Robert Deniro have claimed. Mr. Deniro, who co-founded Tribeca Film Festival, has publicly stated his support for the inclusion of the movie in the festival and may even be the primary reason it is being screened. He has come out in defense of the film being in the festival, and has even shared that he has an autistic son. He states “”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.”” ( http://variety.com/2016/film/news/robert-deniro-vaxxed-anti-vaccination-autism-tribeca-1201739552/ )
The problem here is putting a film like this in your festival is an indirect endorsement that at the very least the information provided in the film is accurate to a reasonable degree. I don’t expect them to fact-check every film they screen. I do expect them to consider whether it’s a good idea to use their platform to screen a film created by a man who lost his medical license due to his actions during and after a study on THIS VERY SUBJECT. The idea that they’re trying to provide an opportunity for conversation ignores two salient facts; they aren’t screening a film with the science discrediting these claims, and there is no reason to provide a platform for every single message, especially one which seems to be based on debunked and dangerously inaccurate information. There are plenty of messages they would never allow into their festival, and it’s ridiculous that this isn’t one of them.
Since this was announced many people in the autism community and the scientific community have criticized it and called into question the ethical problems of promoting a film with such a dangerous message. As an autistic person this is especially important to me, as the stigma surrounding autism is being exploited and at the same time reinforced by the propagation of the idea that vaccines cause autism and thus it’s better to not vaccinate than risk having an autistic kid. Refusing to vaccinate can have serious health implications, potentially even resulting in death, so the idea that one shouldn’t vaccinate in order to avoid your child being autistic unconsciously implies that severe illness or death are preferable. None of the claimed links between autism and vaccines have been substantiated, and the research has been done. Vaccines go through even more stringest testing than prescription drugs before ever being released for public consumption. It’s common for that process to consist of ten to fifteen years of development and various levels of safety and efficacy testing.
There are some individuals attempting to frame the protest against the screening of this film as censorship. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what censorship is. Here’s an example that might help: If the government calls you and says “You can’t screen this movie”, that’s censorship. This is America, though, and that would be a first amendment nightmare in court for anyone trying to do so. If, on the other hand, people stand up and demand that a dangerous film which seems to be full of fraudulent information not be screened as it is likely in our opinion to result in direct harm to the public, that’s not censorship. That’s us demanding that Tribeca Film Festival consider the ethical implications in intentionally promoting a film which seems to perpetuate inaccurate information dangerous to the general public.
I hope Tribeca reconsiders this decision. I don’t know about you, but I think I would have trouble sleeping at night if, theoretically speaking of course, I promoted a film which ended up causing children to die or become very ill. In my opinion that would be pretty hard to live with.