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UPDATE: The Tribeca Film Festival Changes Course, Will Not Screen Film About the Discredited Anti-Vaxx Movement

The controversy shows the film isn’t immune to unfounded fears about vaccination

The Tribeca Film Festival injected even more controversy into the anti-vaccine "debate" when it decided to show a film by the movement's most polarizing figure. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/Corbis )
smithsonian.com

Update, March 26, 2016: After undergoing intense scrutiny for their decision to include 'Vaxxed,' the Tribeca Film Festival decided to remove the film from the lineup. Robert De Niro, co-founder of the festival, says in a statement: "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 headline for this story has been changed accordingly.

Film festivals are places to rub shoulders with the rich and famous while checking out the newest—and most daring—movies from independent directors and big studios. But attendees of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival may end up discussing the science and politics of vaccination instead of their favorite director's latest offering.

As Steven Zeitchik reports for The Los Angeles Times, the festival has raised eyebrows and courted ire with its decision to screen a film directed by the controversial leader of the anti-vaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield.

Billed as a documentary​, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe insists that autism and vaccines are connected—despite a dearth of evidence linking the two. As Zeitchik reports, the film festival did not initially reveal the name of its director, who turned out to be Wakefield.

Wakefield made waves in 1998 when he and his colleagues published a paper in The Lancet linking the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine to developmental disorders, including autism, in children. But the study was seriously flawed. Not only had Wakefield’s research been funded by parents who were suing vaccine makers for what they thought were links between vaccines and autism, but it relied on unethical examinations of children and contained deliberately falsified information that led to unsupported conclusions. According to a report in the British Medical JournalWakefield planned to profit from his false research.

The Lancet retracted the piece and, after an investigation, Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. But by then, the damage was done—the original paper had been part of the medical record for over a decade. Despite the documented safety of vaccines like MMR, an anti-vaccination movement that used Wakefield’s false research as justification for withholding or delaying vaccines for thousands of children sprung up worldwide.

As parents opted out of vaccinations for their kids, diseases like measles and pertussis that had been eradicated in the United States returned. (A new study shows that a large proportion of new cases in the United States were in kids whose parents opted out of vaccines—and that vaccine refusal also endangers people who have been fully vaccinated.) Nobody has proven a link between vaccines and autism, but the debate about vaccine safety continues to rage.

Tribeca’s decision to devote screen time to Wakefield’s film was immediately slammed by various news outlets as "careless," "dangerous," and "a serious mistake." The film’s cast of characters also includes Robert Sears, a pediatrician whose influential suggestion that parents adopt a delayed vaccination schedule has been called "a misrepresentation of vaccine science" by his colleagues.

So far, the film festival, which will take place between April 13 and 24, has remained silent on why it included the movie on this year’s roster. But officials have sporadically responded to critical comments online, as in this Twitter exchange:

When Smithsonian.com reached out to the festival for comment, the Tribeca Film Festival responded along the same lines with the prepared 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.”

Many successful documentaries have an opinion to share, whether it's Michael Moore's jeremiad against the Bush administration in Fahrenheit 9/11 or Blackfish, which exposed the maltreatment of whales at SeaWorld. But Vaxxed's disconnect between subject, documentarian and the truth raises serious and merited questions about its inclusion in an otherwise well-regarded film festival.

When the scientific community overwhelmingly provides evidence on a subject, any challenges to that evidence must withstand the same rigor (see also: anthropogenic climate change). Until that happens, any film based on such challenges stretches the definition of "non-fiction"—regardless of how many people choose to watch it.

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