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