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Robert De Niro’s Anti-Vaccine Controversy: When Did Tribeca Screw Up?

Robert De Niro's Anti-Vaccine Controversy: When Did Tribeca Screw Up?

The Tribeca Film Festival has weathered criticism before, but nothing like the events of this past weekend. After generating backlash from the film community and beyond for programming “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe,” a documentary directed by anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield, the festival issued two statements defending the decision to show the film before announcing on Saturday that it had been pulled the lineup. The convoluted process ultimately put the blame on one person: Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro. 

READ MORE: Tribeca Film Festival Pulls Controversial Anti-Vaccination Doc from Festival Schedule

The festival initially attempted to deter complaints about the film, which promotes Wakefield’s long-discredited claims of a link between vaccination and autism, with a generic statement about “presenting opposing viewpoints without judgement or endorsement.” By Friday, after filmmaker Penny Lane published a widely circulated complaint about the decision, De Niro himself offered a defense of the decision. 

Noting that he and his wife have a child with autism, his statement called the “Vaxxed” screening “very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion,” even as he added that “I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.”

But that wasn’t good enough, and as criticism mounted, the festival finally pulled the film on Saturday. In a new statement, De Niro kept it brief. “We have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program,” he said. Wakefield responded on his own site for the film by claiming that “persons from an organization affiliated with the festival have made unspecified allegations against the film — claims that we were given no opportunity to challenge or redress.” 

Needless to say, Wakefield’s perspective was never going to make “Vaxxed” a beloved component of this year’s Tribeca program. However, while questions remain about how the film was programmed in the first place, the widely publicized incident has raised questions within the film community about where the main problem lies — in the decision to screen “Vaxxed,” or the implications of pulling it. 

A representative for the festival said the decision to remove the film from the program was unanimous. Tribeca’s lineup contains hundreds of films and high-profile events, which its staff are working around the clock to prepare. De Niro still plans on promoting the festival as he does each year, meeting with the press and industry in the coming weeks; invitations to the opening night film are imminent. 

But some members of the industry were troubled by the outcome of complaints against the festival, irrespective of the film’s content. “The consequences of Tribeca’s decision could have very far-reaching and negative implications for filmmakers,” said Jason Ishikawa, senior director of acquisitions, financing and sales at The Film Sales Company, which is representing several films this year at Tribeca. “Festivals, particularly ones that are premiere-heavy and ones that spotlight documentaries, are not unfamiliar with getting cease and desists and other legal, internal and political pressure to pull controversial titles. The takeaway now is that a very visible protest could successfully get a film removed from a festival.” 

Others were more sympathetic to the decision, noting that “Vaxxed” never belonged at a festival with serious intentions in the first place. “It’s one thing to play a film with a fairly harmless, discredited idea at its heart, as in about those believing that the earth is flat,” explained a local programmer from another festival who requested anonymity. “But to program a film with a scientifically discredited idea at its heart that has the ability to adversely affect public health was a terrible idea to begin with. They did the wrong thing in programming this film, and the right thing in pulling it. We all make mistakes. Even programmers.”

Still, filmmakers and others are left wondering: Can the festival just do that?

While there are plenty of precedents for festivals pulling films from their lineups, they usually involve legal concerns. 

In 1998, the Sundance Film Festival canceled screenings of “Kurt and Courtney,” Nick Broomfield’s exposé on Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s relationship, citing “a number of unresolved legal matters.” At the time, EMI Music Publishing claimed that Broomfield lacked rights to some of the film’s music, while Broomfield claimed that the festival was caving to pressure from Love’s publicity team. (“Kurt & Courtney” eventually screened in Park City at the little-known Slamdunk Film Festival.) 

Other examples suggest alternative approaches. In 2009, the Los Angeles Film Festival faced legal challenges when it programmed “Bananas*!”, which alleged that Dole Food Company was responsible for pesticides on its products that caused sterility. After Dole threatened to sue the festival and sponsors withdrew their support, LAFF pulled the film from competition and instead hosted “case study” screenings followed by panel discussions hosted by the festival’s lawyer. Filmmakers were divided about the decision, but Dole eventually dropped its legal threats. 

And last fall, both Toronto and the Telluride Film Festival were forced to cancel screenings of “Amazing Grace,” a restored documentary about Aretha Franklin, after a judge granted an injunction from Franklin’s lawyers. 

The difference in Tribeca’s case is that the festival was not facing legal concerns so much as bad publicity, potentially angry sponsors and security issues at the film’s premiere. But that was also the case for the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004, when it programmed the controversial documentary “Casuistry: The Art Of Killing A Cat,” which focused on the 2001 incident in which three men videotaped the murder of a stray feline. 

Despite blaring protests from animal rights protesters, TIFF programmer Sean Farnel stood his ground. His statement suggests a model of defending programming choices irrespective of the public outcry. “This is about freedom of expression of the filmmaker to make a intelligent, responsible film about a difficult subject,” he told the Toronto Star at the time. “That’s what the festival is all about, setting the terms for debate, not stifling them.”

That incident differs from Tribeca’s situation in one crucial fashion: At no point did any programmers stand up for the film, with De Niro’s statement suggesting that he was solely responsible for its inclusion. By placing the decision in the hands of a single individual, the festival implied that it adhered to a different set of rules in which programmers were not entirely in charge of the films in the lineup. At this point, the festival has declined to comment further on the matter, but the question surrounding how this conundrum came to pass in the first place remains unanswered.

Check out a trailer for Nick Broomfield’s “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” below:

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Comments

Alan

Who the hell told you the movie was ANTI vaccine?

It isn’t!

Helena

When Freedom of Speech is taken away what is left? More Corruption and a Population that is easier to Control. People should be able to speak up so that others can make up their own minds ad make their own decisions. l do not want to be spoon food selected information and not get to decide for myself what suits me. Where is the Freedom in that?

Puzzled & Curious

I think Banana’s Filmmaker Gertten has a point about a disclosure being sufficient "warning" that the material is not a mainstream viewpoint.
I am very puzzled about what the content of this film could be that it can constitute a such a threat to warrant a near unprecedented hue and cry of the entire msm to try to squelch it. Is there an example of a a similar response in the recent past? If the material is a re-hash of mis-information that has been previously addressed, then the outcry has legitimized the film magnitudes more than if it had been simply been shown and the response was by audiences and reviewers was, "Nothing New- how did it get into this show?". Now my interest is piqued to see the film to know what all the hullabaloo is about, whereas had it been just left in to play I would probably not have heard about it or cared less. I also am curious to now to view the film and try to determine what kind of Svengali this Wakefield must be to have been able to hoodwink the otherwise intelligent and responsible professionals into producing a film with him that was at least temporarily thought to have the merit to be at TFF.

caleb

Since when do film festivals vouch for the factual accuracy of the documentaries they screen? And where did festivals get the expertise to know truth from fiction? What programmers do is ensure the material won’t be offensive to anyone capable of harming the festival’s gross receipts or bringing a legal action. In other words, the material has to be "politically correct" to get programmed. Any higher claim is ludicrous; de Niro and Redford don’t employ fact checkers.

Fredrik Gertten

I’m the filmmaker of Bananas!* just to clarify: Los Angeles Film Festival managed to save themselves by kicking us out of competition and showing the film as a case study of a "untruthfull film". We the filmmakers got sued by Dole and we had to take the fight ourselves. Two years of legal fight. I told the full story in Big Boys Gone Bananas!* wich premiered at Sundance 2012. Find it on vimeo on demand.
Regarding VVaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe," a solution is just around the corner by discribing the filmmaker as an anti-vaccine activist. Then we all know that the story might have problems, but that he still represents someone weaker than the vaccine industry. Films can create debate and knowledge even if they are not correct in all details. A film festival should have space for controvercy.

NBK

The crux of this film is about data tampering at the CDC.

Sadly neither the writer of this article nor the commenters mention word one about this irrefutable fact, and its profound implications for public health.

I find this piece to be profoundly irresponsible, poor journalism.

A film that is spreading lies and endangering public safety is well within the parameters of a legal matter. So please, examine the content and wage a protest with your friendly local or federal prosecuting attorney. Good luck!!!

The Streisand Effect

First time I have seen a film get a bad review before anyone has seen it. I was led to believe that the film is basically about the CDC doctoring scientific results and a whistleblower coming forward. Doctoring scientific results? I want to know about that. Also no wonder Wakefield was interested in this. His doctoring of results was plastered all over the media of the western world, why not the CDC’s? I think if TFF made a mistake in taking down the film it maybe the message that went out that says to the audience "you cannot make up your own mind". There were some petitions on change.org; one said show it approx 4000 signatures, one said dont show it – approx 4000 signatures. After the film was pulled in 10hrs, a petition saying put it back had 17,000 signatures. May I say that means, people didnt agree with a film being pulled, regardless of the content.

CC

-"Still, filmmakers and others are left wondering: Can the festival just do that?"
Uh, Yeah. It’s THEIR festival.

Kit Redding

All films are subjective, even documentaries to an extent. Art is the one domain where open expression must have a voice. I would like to hear this Andrew Wakefield’s point of view on vaccinations. Scientists are not the only authority on health.

No

My understanding is that Tribeca had engaged in a "stealth" programming insofar as not fully giving the public any idea as to Wakefield was and how he had been defrocked by the UK medical establishment.

Wayne

I think a lot of the "public" outrage about the film was drug company threats. The pharma industry is among the most profitable in the world.

John Fink

Rather telling Tribeca was blocking Vaxxxed from the reviewing public – no festival pre-screening (not every film gets screened to be fair), no P & I during the festival, and because the film was considered a "Tribeca Talk" requests to attend its one and only screening (on the last day of the festival in the smaller of the two screens at SVA) would required press to either buy a ticket or appeal to the press department. If a festival is going to program a film they ought to stand behind it either way – to say they’re a "forum" and not a judge (as they originally had) is stupid because I’m sure there are thousands of films with bad sounds shot in family houses on DSLRs that they’re not programing (and rightfully so).

Penny Lane

The concerns about "caving to public pressure" are valid but I think misguided in this case. The anti-vaxx community is way, way, WAY louder and frankly more numerous (in terms of who takes the time to speak out) by a huge margin. Compare how many people signed the "pull the film" petition versus how many signed the "put the film back" petition. The latter has approximately 10x the signatures. The noise on Twitter has a similar bent: it is mostly anti-vaxxers first applauding now denouncing Tribeca. My point is: the abuse they are getting now from the anti-vaxxers is way worse than what they got from a few people including myself criticizing their choice. So hardly a base of "caving to public pressure." On the contrary, they simply traded one controversy for another, deciding in the end they’d rather have be criticized VERY LOUDLY by lunatics than pretty mildly by a few rational people whose opinions they decided to care more about. This was a good call if they want to have legitimacy in the doc film "community" (if that exists) as opposed to with the anti-vaxx crowd (who I’m guessing isn’t their core audience).

Mister Sterling

I have been going to the TFF since 2006. I have seen quite a few silly programming selections, but most of them were usually biased choices on movies that were shot in New York State. But this was the first programming choice that was completely undeserved. That a discredited doctor who arguably belongs in prison was able to get a film into the schedule suggests that a TFF board member made it happen. And I think we know who that was.

Peter

"This is about freedom of expression of the filmmaker to make a intelligent, responsible film about a difficult subject," he told the Toronto Star at the time. "That’s what the festival is all about, setting the terms for debate, not stifling them." There you go, that’s the whole situation answered right there. This film doesn’t sound like an ‘intelligent, responsible film’ so it had no business being programmed in the first place but had it been, it should have stayed, obviously.

j

It appears that Robert De Niro was treating a discredited assertion as if it was valid idea and override his own programmers and arranged a special screening of the film. That’s also a dangerous precedent.
He’s never used the festival to promote his own films. That would be off-base, obviously. Also, no one should be using programming decisions to pursue their personal concerns.

Flossie

"’Filmmakers and press actively urging a festival to pull a film — and succeeding — sets a very dangerous precedent,’ said one sales agent representing films in this year’s lineup who requested anonymity."
The dangerous precedent that has now become the norm is the number of festivals saturated with films from sales reps and distributors. Let them do that in a Film Market. Leave the festivals for the unrepresented filmmakers.

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