UPDATED: This post has been updated to include a personal note from filmmaker Penny Lane and a note from Robert De Niro, co-founder of the festival.
The Tribeca Film Festival is currently under fire for a curious inclusion on this year’s documentary slate: An offering titled "Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe" from a newly minted documentarian named Andrew Wakefield. The film is Wakefield’s first, likely because he’s long been occupied with his principal career: Doctor. But, if you’re at all familiar with Wakefield’s history, you have may have another word for it: Quack.
Over at The Cut, the outlet writes about the real Andrew Wakefield, best known not for his documentary career, but for writing a paper in 1998 that linked vaccines to autism. As they note, "he’s not a doctor anymore. He was stripped of his medical license and found guilty of ‘abuse of developmentally challenged children’ and of ‘dishonesty’ in his studies by a hearing of his peers." But while Wakefield’s research has been debunked many times over the years, the theories that his original paper put forth have only endured amongst certain groups. And now he’s got a documentary to show about the whole thing.
The Cut also notes that the film includes "star" Jim Sears, "of the famous Sears family of pediatricians. Jim Sears’s father, Dr. Bill Sears, is responsible for the unfounded ‘adjusted’ vaccination schedule, which suggests a calendar for inoculation different from the CDC’s and is often used to signal a rebellious distaste for the CDC’s recommendation of fully vaccinating children. Though Dr. Jim says he is pro-vaccine, he also says in a statement that he is ‘pro truth’ and then goes on to suggest that it’s possible that the CDC committed fraud and conspiracy."
The film’s official synopsis doesn’t hint at any of this, instead offering up a mostly straightforward line that fails to mention anything about Wakefield’s checkered past. From the Tribeca Film Festival website: "Digging into the long-debated link between autism and vaccines, ‘Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe’ features revealing and emotional interviews with pharmaceutical insiders, doctors, politicians, parents, and one whistleblower to understand what’s behind the skyrocketing increase of autism diagnoses today."
A Tribeca Film Festival spokesperson recently provided The Cut with a statement regarding the matter, which reads: "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."
But other people are not staying silent on the matter. Documentarian Penny Lane, who recently debuted her newest feature, "Nuts!," at this year’s Sundance, has plenty to say and a personal reason to say it: Per a note she dropped to Indiewire, she considers herself "a documentary filmmaker concerned about quackery," a topic she chronicled in "Nuts!"
(Also of note, in 2012, Lane was a recipient of the Tribeca Film Institute’s Documentary Fund, which is not the same entity as the Festival, a distinction we’ve corrected here from our earlier post.)
Lane took to her Facebook page to share an open letter to the festival admonishing their decision to include "Vaxxed" on this year’s slate.
In part, Lane wrote:
"Dear Tribeca Film Festival, I love you but you made a very serious mistake.
On Monday, the widely discredited and dangerous anti-vaccination quack Andrew Wakefield tweeted: ‘Haven’t posted forever. Huge news tomorrow.’
Perhaps he hadn’t ‘posted forever’ because the media finally stopped giving him a megaphone. Perhaps once people in America and England began dying of measles, journalists finally realized that the ‘two sides to every story’ approach granted Wakefield was literally killing people.
Last I heard, Wakefield was headlining Conspira-Sea, a seven-day cruise where passengers learn about crop circles, chemtrails, yogic flying, ESP and astrology. Good, I thought, that’s where he belongs.
Well, not so fast. It seems the quack is back. Wakefield’s ‘huge news’ is that he is now a documentary film director, and that his new film Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe will premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival this April.
Your online film festival guide helpfully suggests if I’m interested in Vaxxed, I might also be interested in the category of ‘documentaries.’ Well, as a documentary filmmaker who spent eight years making a film about a quack: yes, Tribeca Film Festival, I am interested in your choice to screen Vaxxed and what it means for documentaries."
She goes on to write: "issues around truth and ethics in documentary can get thorny. But this one should have been easy. The anti-vaccination hoax has been completely discredited by now. This film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ hoax; this film is *directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.* And this hoax isn’t cute, or fun, or thought-provoking. Very possibly, some people will walk away from your festival having been convinced, in part because of your good name and the excellence and integrity of your documentary programming, not to vaccinate their children. And very possibly people will die as a result."
You can read the rest of Lane’s very thoughtful post on her Facebook page.
Festival co-founder Robert De Niro weighed in on Friday with an official statement, which reads: "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. 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."
As of now, "Vaxxed" is still set to premiere on Sunday, April 24 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Check out a clip from Lane’s "Our Nixon" below: