The Tribeca Film Festival is still weeks away (it runs April 13–24), but it was a busy Saturday of damage control for the fest's publicists, as a controversial title was pulled from its documentary lineup. The film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe—about, per Tribeca's program guide, "the long-debated link between autism and vaccines"—was scheduled for a single 2pm screening on Tribeca's final day. Now that's not going to happen. In a statement issued by fest cofounder Robert De Niro after pressure had mounted, he fell on his sword personally: "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. 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."
Sight unseen, we're going to salute the festival and De Niro for making this decision, for several reasons above and beyond the film itself. First, the documentary's director, Andrew Wakefield, is the very same scientist whose claim of a link between autism and vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella has been thoroughly discredited. Wakefield, a quack, is banned from practicing medicine in his native U.K.; moreover, the Centers for Disease Control has debunked his fraudulent science. Meanwhile, the anti-vaccination movement continues to gain ground, resulting in an uptick in diseases long thought eradicated.
Second, as troubling as it is for any film festival to yank a title based on public pressure, there's real merit to the complaints made by the rest of Tribeca's documentary directors—notably filmmaker Penny Lane (Our Nixon) on her Facebook page—who saw their own work tarnished by association. There's a difference between courting discussion, even inflaming viewers, and presenting a damaging hoax as an alternate truth. That's not how science works: There's a right and a wrong.
Third, and this might have been the toughest factor for the festival, it's revealing that De Niro himself stepped into the fray, first owning up to his personal connection to the autism issue (he is the father of a child with autism) and then admitting to changing his mind. Generally speaking, curatorial decisions are made by a team of programmers. But in this case, it's clear that De Niro wanted the film included. And that's completely within his right. (Start your own film festival if you disagree.) I now have greater respect for De Niro listening to the complaints from the scientific community and giving ground, as personally embarrassing as that might have been.
This was the right call. Speaking as a former Tribeca documentary juror (we honored last year's courageous Democrats), I am proud that the festival has found a way to reassert its integrity. It reminds me of a famous quote: If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. Tribeca won't be falling for Andrew Wakefield, thank goodness.