A movie from the leader of the anti-vaccine movement is set to create controversy when it screens at the Tribeca Film Festival next month.
On Monday, the annual springtime confab quietly announced that, amid a list of Hollywood-centric talks, it would screen a documentary titled “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.” The festival said that the film, a previously unknown production, draws a link between vaccines and autism and that the April 24 event would also feature “a conversation with creators and subjects of the film.”
Tribeca did not reveal the director. He is, it turns out, the highly controversial anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield.
Wakefield helped launch the anti-vaccine movement with a 1998 paper in the Lancet that drew a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and higher rates of autism. Many scientists have since refuted the claim, and the British General Medical Council would go on to find Wakefield guilty of three dozen charges in connection with his research, including four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children. He was also barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom. The Lancet retracted the paper.
Wakefield, though, has pressed on with the cause, and has now taken the fight to the medium of cinema. On Monday he posted to his Twitter and Facebook feeds the message: “Haven't posted forever. Huge news tomorrow.” An official movie page, with a trailer bearing the Tribeca logo, then went up Tuesday.
The roughly two-minute piece walks through claims that the Centers for Disease Control concealed its knowledge of a vaccine-autism link and also forecast that rates of the disease would grow drastically worse if vaccines are not stopped. In the spot, a selection of anti-vaccine voices are seen talking about the connection. The piece includes comments such as: “The CDC had committed fraud on the MMR study” and notes “grievous harm to innocent children.”
The festival described the movie with the following passage:
“The most vitriolic debate in medical history takes a dramatic turn when senior-scientist-turned-whistleblower Dr. William Thompson of the Centers for Disease Control turns over secret documents, data and internal emails confirming what millions of devastated parents and 'discredited' doctors have long-suspected -- vaccines do cause autism.”
Wakefield continues to be discredited by wide swaths of the scientific community, many members of which have held him responsible for convincing parents not to vaccinate their children, with disastrous consequences for public health.
"It's shocking," Michael Specter, a staff writer at the New Yorker who has studied and written extensively about the issue, said when asked in a phone interview Tuesday about the screening. "This is a criminal who is responsible for people dying. This isn't someone who has a 'point-of-view.’ It's comparable to Leni Riefenstahl making a movie about the Third Reich, or Mike Tyson making a movie about violence toward women. The fact that a respectable organization like the Tribeca Film Festival is giving Wakefield a platform is a disgraceful thing to do."
Tribeca is an annual springtime showcase both for high-profile new films and an assortment of movie-related events. In recent years the festival, co-founded by Robert De Niro, has stirred media interest with its public talks. Last year, for instance, Stephen Colbert chatted with George Lucas while Jon Stewart spoke onstage with the stars of “Goodfellas.” This year’s gathering includes sessions with Tom Hanks, Tina Fey and David Byrne.
But the Wakefield movie is likely to attract a whole other level of attention.
Contacted by the Times, a Tribeca spokeswoman provided a statement about the decision to host the film and its director.
“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,” it read.
Efforts to reach Wakefield via his publisher were not immediately successful.
Festivals are known for including provocative voices, especially in documentary categories, which sometimes feature advocacy pieces.
But it’s rare for a gathering to touch on such a hot-button issue from only one side. Many screenings with activist positions usually come from outside filmmakers, such as Gabriela Cowperthwaite's “Blackfish,” about animal abuse at Sea World, or Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” about public education in the United States, both of which premiered at Sundance. The latter was strongly opposed by teachers unions, but it was made by a decorated Oscar winner, not the activists themselves.
Already the news has caused a stir in the online-science world, where the blog Respectful Insolence, which has published frequently on Wakefield, questioned the decision to screen the movie, saying from the trailer that it is "a greatest hits of 'CDC whistleblower' nonsense" and called on "any skeptics in the NYC area" to attend the event.
"Besides asking skeptical questions, you can report on which celebrities show up for this screening. My guess is that they’ll be on the order of Jenny McCarthy or Rob Schneider," noting two outspoken anti-vaccine Hollywood personalities.
Tribeca this year is also screening "Life, Animated," Roger Ross Williams' movie that looks at autism through the prism of one family’s encounter with the disease. That movie, about the writer Ron Suskind and his son, won a prize at Sundance and recently screened at the prestigious True/False Film Fest. Tribeca appears to hope the movie offers a counterpoint of sorts to Wakefield's film, though "Life, Animated" is not a scientific study and merely looks at the complicated realities of living with autism.