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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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