The battle over an anti-vaccine movie at the Tribeca Film Festival took a fresh turn Friday, as festival co-founder Robert De Niro revealed that he was the one who drove the decision to screen the divisive film.
A controversy has brewed since Tuesday, when the Los Angeles Times revealed that a Tribeca selection called "Vaxxed" was a documentary by the polarizing anti-vaccine leader Andrew Wakefield and that Wakefield would attend the gathering. Many asked how a prestigious festival could host Wakefield, who is hated by many in the scientific community for what they allege is spreading false information and spurring a dangerous anti-vaccine trend.
On Friday De Niro said it was he who wanted the film to play Tribeca.
"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," he said, referring to his wife and their child Elliot, in a statement sent to reporters Friday.
He continued: "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."
Reactions on social media were strong and often critical. Some asked whether a distinction could be made between providing a platform and endorsing its message, given that the movie had been on few radars and a festival would have been under no pressure to show it.
Tribeca organizers have defended the movie as part of a larger culture of dialogue.
"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," a spokeswoman said in a statement on behalf of the festival earlier this week.
The vaccination debate is a charged one, both among anxious parents and members of the mainstream medical community. The latter has vigorously said there is no link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism, as the anti-vaccine movement claims.
The Tribeca screening of "Vaxxed" takes place April 24, the last day of the springtime confab.
The controversy over the picture highlights a little-discussed aspect of film festivals. Most top-flight gatherings maintain a public stance of impartiality, even though the act of choosing any film, and certainly any issue-driven documentary, is almost inherently partisan.
Rarely, however, is a decision on such a charged topic made by the founder of a film festival, let alone revealed as being made by the same.
How De Niro will be viewed in the wake of the statement remains to be seen. Many anti-vaccine activists in Hollywood are lower-profile personalities, such as actress Jenny McCarthy and actor Rob Schneider. Very few A-list Oscar winners have taken positions that could be seen as sympathetic to the anti-vaccine cause.
The De Niro news does quell reports that actor Leonardo DiCaprio was involved in backing the film -- as Wakefield apparently told reporters on a promotional cruise -- and even may have been orchestrating its Tribeca screening.