Documentary Ethics: Is Pulling An Anti-Vaxx Documentary A Freedom of Expression Breach Or Simply Responsible?

tribeca_film_festival_ny

Until yesterday, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” was an entry in the 2016  Tribeca Film Festival. It was directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced doctor and researcher whose study purporting to show a link between vaccinations and autism was published in the British medical journal “The Lancet” in 2010 and then retracted. Wakefield subsequently lost his medical license because of undisclosed conflicts of interest and misrepresentations in his paper, and has been wandering the earth wearing the metaphorical sackcloth robe of the outcast ever since.

The decision by the festival and its founder Robert De Niro to screen the film was the focus of a furious controversy. Many consider Wakefield a murderer because his work has convinced parents to eschew vaccinations out of irrational fear sown by his false research conclusions. De Niro insisted that the film deserved a screening to provoke dialogue, but has had a change of heart, mind, or self-preservation instinct. He pulled the film yesterday, writing,

“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.”

Translation: “When it comes to standing up for free expression, Andrew Wakefield and the anti-vaxxer delusion is not a hill worth dying for.”

Andrew Wakefield has no right to have his film exhibited at Tribecca, nor does the festival have an obligation to show it. Nonetheless, the decision not to screen this film with a dubious premise directed by a conflicted liar underscores the inconsistency  inherent in the proclamations of reverence for artists’ visions and the importance of allowing documentaries and films with controversial positions and messages to be seen and debated.

Why is Wakefield’s film more objectionable than Michael Moore’s valentine to Cuba’s health system, for example, or Al Gore’s rigged climate change documentary? Who has the moral, scientific or historical authority to declare that this filmed crackpot conspiracy theory or that partisan talking point is worthy of entry in a film festival? The answer, of course, is no one.

If Wakefield’s movie looks like it was directed by Ed Wood, or has the artistic value of Stephen King’s sole directorial effort, “Maximum Overdrive,” which I have tried four times to watch and had to abandon in disgust—not with the intended horror but the unintended incompetence—then the Festival should reject it as crap. Rejecting the film on substance, however, is beyond Robert De Niro’s expertise. He’s really rejecting the film because its assertions are unpopular, and that’s the only reason.

I wouldn’t cross my driveway to watch an anti-vaxx film, but that’s not the issue, is it? Either we believe in freedom of expression or we don’t. There’s no avoiding the slipperiness of this slope. The much-praised documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, “It Happened Here,” is as damaging and intellectually dishonest as any anti-vaxx film, but it’s a feminist film, you see, so nobody would dare ban it from a film festival. “Blackfish,” the Sea World attack documentary, is slanted, unfair and misleading, but again, it took a position that Hollywood liberals and journalists favor, so its dishonesty was acceptable, and it was shown on CNN.  If film festivals can declare one point of view abhorrent and unworthy of appearing on their screen regardless of artistic merit (and as Leni Riefenstahl proved, the well-made documentaries are the ones to worry about, not the hack jobs), where is the line? Is an anti-abortion documentary ban-worthy on substance alone? How about an anti-Obama documentary? Can a documentary showing how dangerous Iran is and arguing that the nuclear development deal is insane pass muster?

I’m trying to think of topics that most people would agree should be taboo for documentary makers to advocate. Holocaust denial; white supremacy; misogyny; promotion of incest and child molestation; LGBT abuse; creationism. Is there a clear line there? I don’t see it. Vivid, interesting, shocking documentaries could be made extolling meat-eating, strip-mining, beastiality; and a return to traditional definitions of marriage. How about a documentary about the idiocy of typical voters, advocating severe limits on the franchise? Imagine a documentary rationalizing the case for Donald Trump as President. Would Donald Trump in the White House do more damage than anti-vaxx hysteria?

Don’t get me started.

De Niro’s initial instinct to let the movie be seen, not his politically correct decision to bury it, was in the best interests of freedom of expression in the United States and therefore the more ethical response.

The growing tendency to silence those with non-conforming opinions is  far, far more dangerous than Andrew Wakefield’s junk science.

_________________________

Pointer: Garry DeWitt

24 thoughts on “Documentary Ethics: Is Pulling An Anti-Vaxx Documentary A Freedom of Expression Breach Or Simply Responsible?

  1. I do not think De Niro changed his mind because the views were unpopular. In fact, the reason he originally decided to air the film was due to its containing unpopular ideas. De Niro said that after consulting experts, he believed that the film was harmful.

    Who has the right to make that decision? De Niro. Just as he had the right to decide to include the film, he had the right to remove the film after he gained more factual information on the subject. Although de Niro’s position gave him the authority, the fact that he has child with autism gives him more credibility. De Niro would not let anyone bully him into removing the film if he still thought it would provoked productive discussions of autism.

    • Since the post made it clear that De Niro had every right to pull the film, I’m not sure what you think this comment accomplishes. And since when did “provoking productive discussions” become the litmus test for any film’s fitness to be displayed?

  2. I think De Niro’s decision to pull this ‘documentary’ out of the festival was correct. The lunatic fringe doesn’t need a platform to convince gullible parents to not vaccinate their kids with disastrous results for them and the health of the community.

          • I’m not arguing that. But your same argument is used against policy objections to radical anti-climate change measures. Bad ideas and bad science expose themselves, and are more sinister when they are underground. Did you see “The Day After Tomorrow”? I’d say that’s climate change propaganda and ridiculous, AND silly people believe it.

            • I think putting a film about climate change against real fears of epidemics is bogus. The Central American “kids” influx is one example of how unvaccinated immigrants can bring tb, chicken pox, and god knows what other diseases into this country. Quarantine and vaccination are appropriate means of dealing with these health problems.

              • You’re not listening. Whether or not it’s bogus, you have Presidential candidates saying that climate change is an existential threat and pundits saying that “deniers” should be jailed. The point is that what constitutes a dangerous position is subjective. Always.

                • First, there are viable arguments for Cuba’s (and other socialist countries’) health system in terms of serving the total public that did not come as hysterical gospel from Moore, and certain aspects of climate change, in place well before Gore, that need to be (and are being) addressed by human beings. There is no argument for anti-Vax other than raising your child in a wilderness or a bubble. It is not a subject for discussion; merely a piece of “bad science” and social psychology to be Googled.

                  That being said, the founder of a film festival is not necessarily, in fact, rarely, the person who continues in total charge, especially with an event as large as Tribeca. Robert de Niro is currently Co-Chair (one of three) of the Board of the Tribeca Film Institute, and not one of the programmers of the Festival. While his word would carry a lot of weight, more than anyone else’s perhaps, his would not be the final say. I’m sure there was considerable education for Mr. de Niro from the Documentary Programmer and others on the Board that contributed to his change of mind.

                  Mister de Niro’s say is heard far and wide because his is a famous name. With popular media, the first statement, like the biggest headline, is often the only one paid attention to. I think that’s unfortunate because it aroused not a sleeping tiger but a thoroughly dead one. He made an unethical choice; he made an ethical retraction. Good for him.

  3. He has made two mistakes , one was allowing the film to be accepted and the second is kicking it out. Once the film was accepted he had the obligation to allow it to be screened. That’s the hard choice and the correct one.

    As to why he allowed it to be screened I believe that he had ulterior motives as he has a child that has autism.

    ““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.”

    • However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program

      Weasel words. After showing it, they (since he insists on using “we”) should have said either that they pulled it because they didn’t want (any further?) trouble, or that they found the content to be scientifically incorrect and dangerous to promote … and said specifically what that was. A documentary is supposed to be able to “document” truthfully.

  4. Jack,
    Just to clarify — because I’ve had a recent history of misconstruing your arguments — DeNiro had an ethical obligation, owing to the supposedly artistic aims of the festival, to show the “documentary” as originally planned. However, he was under no legal or social obligation, owing to the fact that he’s a private citizen operating a privately-owned film festival. Yes? If so, I agree.

    Some years ago, my uncle (who is the pastor of a very conservative congregation in a very conservative small town in Iowa) headed a campaign to keep “The Last Temptation of Christ” from showing at their local cineplex. After much cajoling and petition-signing, the theater relented and agreed not to show the film. Although I found his efforts to be a waste of time (had every one of the signatories simply agreed not to purchase a ticket, the film would have closed within a week, with far less fanfare) it was their community and the theater was merely acting according to it’s own economic self-interest. I hate use of the heckler’s veto and/or PC-censorship as much as anyone, but as long as it’s not coming from the state, I would say it’s perfectly kosher. But, had they tried to get the city council involved, that would have been a very different story.

    I appreciate those who defend unpopular opinions, because they keep the fringes in check and the Overton Window open — but it doesn’t make them any more worthy of an audience. Moreover, just because no one defends a particular idea, doesn’t mean the conversation is any less substantive. Birthers, truthers, and moon hoax believers (moonies?) always seem to defend their positions by claiming “Hey, we’re just asking important questions”, when they’re actually just gumming up the dialogue with nonsense. After all, there may be no such thing as a stupid question, but if I attend a calculus class and start inquiring about basic arithmetic, I’m just holding everyone back. Anti-vaxxers may ask questions that “challenge” the establishment and they have every right to ask them, but why should the media or pop culture feel obligated to pay them any mind?

    Hope you’re well!

    • “DeNiro had an ethical obligation, owing to the supposedly artistic aims of the festival, to show the “documentary” as originally planned. However, he was under no legal or social obligation, owing to the fact that he’s a private citizen operating a privately-owned film festival. Yes?”

      Yes. I hope you’re well too. You worry me.

  5. Okay. I’m… quite familiar with… this and the surrounding issues (which is the polite way of saying that I’ve been watching Wakefield and his antics for most of a decade now), and I have to disagree with your analysis.

    To start off, I don’t think that Blackfish or Super Size Me are appropriate analogies for Wakefield’s so-called “documentary”. Wakefield isn’t a commentator or simply a documentary filmmaker here — he was an integral part of the “story”, both in the broader scheme (the vaccine-autism thing) and in the particular (the “CDC Whistleblower” affair). The correct analogy isn’t Blackfish or the like. It isn’t even a conspiracy theorist “documentary” on the JFK assassination which alleges that a CIA sniper was the one to actually fire the fatal shot.

    The correct analogy is a conspiracy theorist “documentary” of that sort on the JFK assassination produced by Lee Harvey Oswald.

    It isn’t just a bad or dishonest documentary. It’s a fraudulent one, meant to directly promote the maker’s interests and vindicate/salvage his personal reputation.

    That’s without getting into Wakefield’s last documentary, which has the distinct “honor” of being arguably the single most despicable, grossly unethical, and generally reprehensible so-called “film” ever made: the piece of filicide apologist propaganda known as “Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis”.

    By giving Wakefield a platform at Tribeca, De Niro wasn’t just giving a questionable documentarian the opportunity to promote a dangerous position. He was giving a known fraud a platform to demonize his detractors and attempt to clear him of his misconduct in the “court” of popular and celebrity opinion even after the General Medical Council stripped him of his license.

    Perhaps De Niro didn’t know the depths to which Wakefield had sunk. Perhaps he was pressured into allowing a showing by Representative Posey (who’s been known to go to bat for Wakefield before) or someone from his office (and Wakefield’s responses seem to support his involvement). Perhaps he only knew the title of the film and not who made it.

    Regardless, De Niro certainly found out a good bit after he revealed his inclusion of the film… and I applaud him for attempting to rectify his mistake.

    • “He was giving a known fraud a platform to demonize his detractors and attempt to clear him of his misconduct in the “court” of popular and celebrity opinion even after the General Medical Council stripped him of his license.”

      Which he has every right to do, and if he does it in an artistic and entertaining matter, then it is no different from a Michael Moore documentary. All you have done is say how bad the speaker is, and how wrong the message is. Neither has anything to do with freedom of expression. Farenheit 911 was dishonest and despicable, and did terrific harm. Would Wakefield’s film do more harm? Ironically, it depends on how well he made it, and if its made well enough, then it deserves to be shown. You can’t attack it based on content.

      • He has the right to try and vindicate himself, sure… but that’s not what this is about. We’re not talking about Wakefield’s right to make the documentary; we’re talking about Tribeca’s decision to show it (and later decision to reverse the first one).

        Claims that the content of a documentary have nothing to do with whether or not a film festival should show it are patently absurd. The content of the film — including, at least on a superficial level, the claims made — are what it’s judged on… and that’s even before I point out that De Niro’s statements make it abundantly clear that the decision to show the film in the first place was, in fact, based on said content (or at least aspects thereof).

        But, more to the point, you’re missing mine. Your initial argument was that while Tribeca shouldn’t have agreed to show the film in the first place, their decision to pull it was wrong.

        This necessarily involves a good bit of balancing, as any decision will have bearing on multiple ethical obligations and principles. You assert that Wakefield’s film is analogous to Moore’s; I disagree (and explained why). In fact, I think that Wakefield’s films fall into a rather distinct category: films that it’s unethical to lend a platform to due to their fraudulent nature.

        To be clear, I’m not just talking about the film’s content when I say that. I’m also referring to things like conflicts of interest and an assortment of issues relating to the film’s production. I don’t describe it as “fraudulent” simply because its content is made up, but rather because of the fact that its ultimate aim is the vindication, defense, and promotion of actual fraud, in the legal and financial senses of the term (not to mention the scientific frauds that started the entire Wakefield affair).

        Beyond the above, there’s a a simple obligation which comes rather strongly into play here: the obligation to fix one’s mistakes (or at least attempt to rectify them). If De Niro came to realize that the decision to include Wakefield’s “documentary” was a mistake, he’d be obliged to attempt to fix it and/or make amends. While he didn’t apologize per se for choosing it, his statement on why he decided to not show it directly addresses his rationale for showing it at the festival in the first place.

        Boiled down, it says: “Okay, so showing this won’t have the effect I thought it would, so we won’t show it after all.”

        It is, in other words, an admission of error.

        Now, I don’t know what happened behind the scenes or what his real reasons were. I’ve heard a good bit of scuttlebutt, but can’t confirm much of it. Still, “Okay, I was wrong” is a rather exceptional statement from a Hollywood persona — and I’d like to see more such.

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