There was something strange about Tribeca Film Festival’s 2016 documentary line-up.
It included a film produced by the man who’s been linked to jump-starting mass, unfounded hysteria over vaccinations.
It’s since been removed from Tribeca’s schedule, but now, another theatre is set to debut it.
Angelika Film Center, an independent theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood, is premiering the film starting Friday, April 1, according to its website.
The man who made the film is Andrew Wakefield, and in 1998 he infamously — and wrongfully — presented a paper claiming that a combination vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), could be linked to the onset of autism.
In the fallout from his error-riddled presentation, his so-called findings were discredited in close to every way possible: The paper was retracted. Wakefield was stripped of his medical licence, found guilty of “abusing a position of trust as a medical practitioner,” and found guilty of “dishonesty” in his studies.
You wouldn’t have known it from looking at Tribeca’s website, however. Here’s how they described the film, called “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe”:
Digging into the long-debated link between autism and vaccines … [the film] 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.
As for its producer, Andrew Wakefield, all Tribeca said about him is this:
Andrew Wakefield, MB.BS., is an academic gastroenterologist who practiced medicine at the Royal Free in the UK publishing over 140 scientific papers. In 1995, he was contacted by parents of autistic children with stomach issues; he learned that these conditions often occurred immediately following an MMR vaccine.
In pursuit of this possible link, Dr. Wakefield led an initial study of twelve children with both stomach and developmental issues.
The report, published in The Lancet, would catapult Wakefield into becoming one of the most controversial figures in the history of medicine.
Not surprisingly, the festival got a lot of heat for its choice to include the movie in its line-up, and on March 27 decided to remove it from its schedule.
Documentarian Penny Lane, who received the Tribeca Film Institute’s Documentary Fund (not the same entity as the film festival) in 2012 and recently produced a film about a doctor who “built an empire with his goat-testicle impotence cure,” wrote a scathing public letter to Tribeca on Facebook about its choice.
“Dear Tribeca Film Festival, I love you but you made a very serious mistake,” Lane wrote.
She adds: “Your online film festival guide helpfully suggests if I’m interested in Vaxxed, I might also be interested in the category of ‘documentaries.’ Well, as a documentary filmmaker who spent eight years making a film about a quack: yes … I am interested in your choice to screen Vaxxed and what it means for documentaries.”
Who is Andrew Wakefield and how did his infamous vaccine study go so viral?
Back in 1998, when Wakefield was still working as a physician, London’s Royal Free Hospital held a press conference to publicize a paper he’d written (which has since been retracted) for the esteemed medical journal The Lancet.
The paper was about vaccinations.
In it, Wakefield claimed that one vaccination in particular, a popular inoculation for measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), could be linked to the onset of autism, a serious neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impaired social interaction.
But the damage was done. And its aftereffects continue to be felt today, from vaccination rates that declined in the wake of Wakefield’s publicity to new outbreaks of measles and other illnesses for which perfectly safe inoculations exist.
The new film, whose official synopsis, according to Indiewire, doesn’t even allude to any of the above, was set to premier Sunday, April 24, at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Here’s the statement Tribeca provided to Business Insider from actor and Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert DeNiro on its decision to include the film:
“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.”
Tribeca later issued a follow-up statement from DeNiro to Business Insider, announcing the removal of VAXXED from the Tribeca lineup:
“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.”