The new documentary, Vaxxed: From Cover Up to Catastrophe, which was briefly allowed on the Tribeca Film Festival slate and then removed after a wave of protest, has two undeniably powerful things going for it: it is confronting a devastating health care issue, and it touchingly represents the heartbreaking and confounding tragic stories of families and children maligned by a blight that they understandably yearn to comprehend.

The film was going to be released in June, but the filmmakers and distributor Cinema Libre jumped on the media frenzy caused by the Tribeca rejection and put it in theaters this past Friday. I went to the first showing despite of—or really because of—my strong reservations about the film. The director, Andrew Wakefield, is the one-time doctor who had his license revoked when he authored an article in medical journal The Lancet in 1998 suggesting that the MMR vaccine might cause autism. The journal retracted the paper and, as I wrote earlier, Britain’s General Medical Council referred to Wakefield’s work as “dishonest” and “misleading.”

I’d read enough over the years not to believe in anything Wakefield had to say on the subject but I felt compelled—heck, I’m Doc Soup Man, after all—to see what he’d do as a documentary director. Approaching Vaxxed, I couldn’t help but think of Donald Trump. When a guy with a very big megaphone says dangerous and ignorant things, playing on people’s worst fears that could stir them up, is it best to just ignore him and hope that he’ll disappear? I think that’s generally a good rule.

Megalomaniac demagogues have come and gone but Trump was given too much credence and now look at the ugly situation we’re in. The same applies to anti-vaxxers as far as I am concerned. In fact, their noise had died down. Now, just because a documentary film gets released, it doesn’t mean they’re back. But as I sat in that theater with 40 or so people, many of whom were clearly in Wakefield’s camp, I couldn’t deny they do indeed remain. And I can’t deny the draw to study and maybe even learn from something I so deeply mistrust. And I think I have. I hope I’ve seen the film so that you don’t have to.

First, I want to plainly state that Vaxxed perpetuates the fraudulent thinking, and scientifically discredited belief, that the MMR vaccine might cause autism. It is powerfully manipulative. In many ways, it’s more effective than a Dinesh D’Souza documentary (2016: Obama’s America), which has garnered mass knuckle-dragging audiences into theaters.

You’d think that Wakefield, who has been discredited by the medical profession and who is confronting a scientific topic, would lay a foundation of scientific credibility for the notion that MMR causes autism in Vaxxed. But no. There’s a second party reference to such papers or studies but they’re never examined. This alone should put up a huge red flag.

What the film mostly relies on is the taped recording of a supposed whistle-blower, Dr. William Thompson from the CDC, who casts doubt on a CDC clinical study that refuted the notion that MMR causes autism. Apparently, Thompson broke ranks from his peers. Another doctor, Brian Hooker, who was not on the study but has a son with autism, got the numbers from Thompson and crunched them on his own.

Vaxxed relies on Hooker’s findings to deduce the link. But guess what the film doesn’t mention? Hooker published those findings in a journal that also retracted them.

So, science goes out the window.

What Wakefield does have is powerful anecdotal evidence. Scores and scores of families have been traumatized by the experience of living with perfectly normal children who suddenly turn abnormal after a year or so of life. It must be devastating. The stories are very moving. And you can’t blame them for wanting answers. And as logical as it may seem to them that the MMR vaccine caused their children to change, there’s no medical evidence. In fact, there have been many, many peer-reviewed scientific papers that have concluded that there is no link.

But they do have Wakefield waving them in toward an answer that must provide some relief.

I worry about distributor Cinema Libre, which I’d respected in the past. Chairman Philippe Diaz issued a statement contending that the film was worth supporting because it believes that there was a cover up, none of which I saw strong evidence for, and because of the misinformation that Wakefield isn’t actually anti-vaccine.
The last point is spurious because he is in fact clearly, decidedly, anti-MMR vaccine and that’s what matters because that’s what the CDC mandates for kids. Making such a big deal about this distinction regarding Wakefield only further clouds the issue.

Look, I’m sympathetic to Wakefield’s skepticism of the CDC’s authority. I also share his mistrust of a medical system that is in cahoots with Big Pharma. There may well be improper things going on at the CDC, but Wakefield doesn’t seem to be earnest in his truth mission. He doesn’t mention all of the other papers that have discounted a connection between autism and MMR. Nor does he explore the new peer-reviewed papers that have linked a time-delayed genetic anomaly caused by older parents having children.

Wakefield just keeps the focus on his whistleblower and the notion that this paper was improperly presented. And is it lost on all of his followers that the very accusation that he is making about the CDC paper are ones that he has been found guilty of by his peers?

Still, one in 68 children are now diagnosed on the autism spectrum. One in 42 boys. Just a few decades prior, the numbers weren’t even statistically significant enough to be a blip on anyone’s radar. Why is this happening? This is such a cataclysmic phenomenon having such a deep impact on families and on our national health care system. (I should note here that not all families affected by autism cast their lot as “blight,” but Vaxxed sure does.)

And there are no clear answers. Thank goodness there are so many documentaries out there speaking to the experience of people impacted by autism.

But why isn’t there a top-down, insightful documentary that tackles the national epidemic of autism beyond the anecdotal impact? Is there one that can push us toward answers the way An Inconvenient Truth tried to do with climate change? Let me know! Because Andrew Wakefield shouldn’t be the only one wielding the megaphone on finding an answer to autism.

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs!

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen