The Tribeca Film Festival’s screen of a documentary by a discredited former doctor whose research caused widespread alarm about the issue. The film, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” is directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, an anti-vaccination activist and an author of a study — published in the British medical journal The Lancet, in 1998 — that was retracted in 2010.
The film festival confirmed that the biographical material about Wakefield does not mention that he was stripped of his license or that his Lancet study was retracted. Rather, it says that the Lancet study “would catapult Wakefield into becoming one of the most controversial figures in the history of medicine.”
In addition to the retraction of the study, which involved 12 children, Britain’s General Medical Council, citing ethical violations and a failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest, revoked Wakefield’s medical license.
On Friday, Robert De Niro, one of the Tribeca festival’s founders, said in a statement issued through the festival’s publicists that he supported the plan to show the movie next month, although he said he was “not personally endorsing the film,” nor was he against vaccination.
De Niro’s statement from the Tribeca Film Festival’s screen statement seemed to suggest that this was the first time he has expressed a preference that a particular film be shown at the festival.
“Grace and I have a child with autism,” he wrote, referring to his wife, Grace Hightower De Niro, “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.”
Within hours his statement, posted on Facebook, generated hundreds of comments.
The trailer for the Tribeca film for Vaxxed, filled with dramatic music, opens with the words “Are Our Children Safe?” on a black screen with billowing smoke that appears to be coming from a syringe. The trailer includes the suggestion that a “whistle-blower” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would say that the organization “had committed fraud” and “that they knew that vaccines were actually causing autism.” Wakefield appears in the trailer saying, “Wow, the C.D.C. had known all along there was this M.M.R. autism risk.”
M.M.R. stands for the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella that children 12 to 15 months old are supposed to receive. Scientific evidence has repeatedly shown the vaccine to be safe, highly effective and having no connection to autism. In recent years, serious outbreaks of measles have erupted, including one at Disneyland, partly because many parents have refused to vaccinate their children.
The plan for the Tribeca Film Festival’s screen has unnerved and angered doctors, infectious disease experts and even other filmmakers.
“Unless the Tribeca Film Festival plans to definitively unmask Andrew Wakefield, it will be yet another disheartening chapter where a scientific fraud continues to occupy a spotlight and overshadows the damage he has left behind in the important story of vaccine safety and success,” Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said in an email.
The Tribeca screen threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers, but the field in general, according to documentary filmmaker Penny Lane (“Our Nixon”). Lane published an open letter on Thursday to the festival’s organizers in Filmmaker Magazine.
According to the Tribeca Film Festival screen’s website, “Vaxxed” will be screened only once, on April 24, the festival’s closing day. A talk with the director and the film’s subjects will follow.