Facing a growing outcry, Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro has decided to remove a controversial anti-vaccine film from the gathering’s lineup.
Just a day after the actor revealed he had pushed for a showing of the film, titled “Vaxxed” and directed by the polarizing anti-vaccine activist Andrew Wakefield, De Niro reversed his position.
“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,” De Niro said in a statement Saturday. “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.”
Tribeca caused an uproar earlier in the week when it announced that “Vaxxed” would be screened. The movie alleges a “cover-up” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine increasing the risk of autism – a position that has been widely discredited by the scientific community and criticized for leading to a dangerous drop-off in MMR vaccinations.
Recent years have brought an increase in measles outbreaks, including a high-profile series of cases tied to Disneyland in 2015.
The festival’s decision to give Wakefield a platform was radioactive from the start. Social media reaction was swift and negative.
The New Yorker medical journalist Michael Specter told the Los Angeles Times it was “shocking” and “disgraceful.” “This is a criminal who is responsible for people dying,” Specter said.
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik was also an outspoken critic. “That hand-waving in favor of ‘dialogue’ can shield a lot of damaging mischief,” he wrote.
On Friday, De Niro revealed that he, and not the festival’s programmers, had been the one to schedule the film, citing interest in the issue stemming from his child, who is autistic.
It was unclear what prompted the about-face such a short time later.
“The festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy,” he said. “However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the festival program.”
Where this leaves Wakefield remains an open question. The activist could still seek to hold a separate screening in New York outside the festival April 24, the day it was scheduled.
He also could use the decision as proof of a conspiracy against his theories.
“Once you give someone a platform, it’s very hard to take it away,” Specter said earlier in the week. “It creates a martyr.”
Still, he said the outcome was far preferable to the alternative, which would have given Wakefield a seal of legitimacy.
“It is comforting to know that in the end, Mr. De Niro and his colleagues at the festival responded to data and science rather than to emotion and fear,” he wrote in an email. “Many children will benefit from this decision.”
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