The Tribeca Film Festival was on the precipice of allowing discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield to shout, “fire!” in one of its crowded, prestigious theaters. Wakefield is the man who authored the original 1998 article that declared that the MMR vaccine caused autism. The article was retracted by its publisher, British medical journal The Lancet, and caused him to be barred by the General Medical Council from practicing medicine because he was “dishonest,” “misleading,” “inappropriate,” and “callously disregarded the pain and distress young children might suffer and behaved in a way which brought the profession into disrepute.”
All of which, it seemed, makes him qualified to direct a documentary about the same subject. If you look around on the Internet, you can find films or shorts either directed or in some way produced by Wakefield. All have the markings of bottom-dwelling conspiracy theorizing — ham-fisted use of archival footage, fear-mongering and sensationalizing — not unlike what you see on YouTube coming from 9/11 Truthers.
Tribeca had announced last week that Wakefield’s film, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe would be showing during the festival. But this just in: they changed their minds. From festival cofounder, Robert De Niro:
“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 Festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy. However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program. We have decided to remove it from our schedule.”
There had been many articles written in the past week, since the original announcement, either condemning, denouncing, or raising serious questions about its inclusion. Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane wrote a passionate and well-reasoned screed tearing into the festival, noting “this threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers in your doc slate, but the field in general.”
I have some history here. I wrote a story for the New York Times about how film festivals rarely include films from conservatives or outside of the standard, liberal perspective. Contrarian filmmaker Phelim McAleer, who had been denied by Tribeca, probably said it most succinctly. “I hate film festivals,” he said. “There is not one film shown that anyone would disagree with at a Manhattan dinner party.”
Is that what was happening here? Was Tribeca trying to rile things up? As Sundance’s John Cooper told me in that same story, “We like films that create dialogue.” He also noted, however, that “the credibility of a filmmaker does matter to us.”
Tribeca’s Geoffrey Gilmore told me at the time that “You look for whether the film works,” and you shouldn’t judge based on ideology.
Indeed, in reply to the original Los Angeles Times story about Vaxxed, the festival issued this statement:
“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.”
But that was a convenient evasion. Doesn’t a film festival have to maintain an ethical standard for the films it includes? Would the festival, built from the ashes of World Trade Center, allow a documentary that claims that the CIA was behind the 9/11 attacks?
Before his latest statement, De Niro came out with a statement defending the inclusion of the film:
“Grace [Hightower, his wife] and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined,” he said. “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 the beginning of the 20th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. qualified the parameters of free speech by saying one can’t shout, “fire!” in a theater. That evocative instruction isn’t a criminal offense any more — one has to explicitly direct others to commit criminal actions.
Is encouraging people to neglect the health of their children a criminal act? I suppose not, but it sure does seem unethical.
I am greatly relieved that De Niro and Tribeca chose to reverse their decision. It’s the right call.