Following Outcry, Robert De Niro Yanks Anti-Vaxxing Film from Tribeca Festival

Andrew Wakefield's controversial film won't be shown in April.
March 27, 2016, 2:44pm
Robert De Niro and Grace Hightower attend 2015 National Board of Review Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on January 5, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro has canceled the screening of Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, a documentary focusing on the widely discredited link between autism and vaccines, just two days after defending it.

In a statement posted to Facebook, De Niro reaffirmed that he had originally decided to show the film out of a desire to "provide an opportunity for conversation" about the issue, which affects him personally as he and his wife Grace Hightower have an autistic child. But, he said, "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."

De Niro added that "The Festival doesn't seek to avoid or shy away from controversy. However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program."

"We're all for ongoing reasonable debate and discussion, but these are ideas that have been proven to be incorrect many, many, many times over the past 15 years."

De Niro didn't specifically mention what those members of the scientific community had told him, but it almost certainly has something to do with the mountain of studies that have failed to prove any sure-fire link between vaccines and autism.

Then there's also the issue that the film itself is the work of British ex-physician Andrew Wakefield, who started all this talk of linking autism and vaccines in the first place in a 1998 paper that was retracted in 2010. Britain's General Medical Council stripped Wakefield of his medical license that same year following the revelation that he had falsified and misrepresented data.

Few other cases have so readily showed the dangers of such cases. Largely as a result of the anti-vaccination movement spurred on by Wakefield's work, diseases like measles and pertussis came back from near-extinction in the United States. Measles in particular has been out of action here for so long that younger doctors don't even recognize it when they see it.

In the trailer for Vaxxed, Wakefield takes the approach that's often used by those who have had their claims debunked by reputable scientific organizations. You see (he says), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are hiding evidence that would support his claims. It's all a big conspiracy. And, naturally, there's an appeal to saving the children.

Yes, everyone wants that. But as Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told The New York Times yesterday, we must do it correctly.

"[Wakefield's film] gave these fraudulent ideas a face and a position and an energy that many of us thought they didn't deserve," Schaffner said. "We're all for ongoing reasonable debate and discussion, but these are ideas that have been proven to be incorrect many, many, many times over the past 15 years."

Wakefield and producer Del Bigtree posted a statement on the website for Vaxxed. "It is our understanding 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," the statement says. "We were denied due process. We have just witnessed yet another example of the power of corporate interests censoring free speech, art, and truth."

Wakefield's film was originally scheduled to screen at the festival on April 24.