Robert De Niro and wife, Grace Hightower, attend the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015.
Photo: Taylor Hill
The actor Robert De Niro has caved into public pressure and withdrawn from the Tribeca Film Festival a controversial film by a discredited former doctor whose false “findings” linking autism to vaccines caused widespread alarm and a decline in vaccination rates.
The prestigious film festival, which De Niro co-founded in New York in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, has withdrawn Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe from its planned closing night premiere screening.
“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 sent to Fairfax.
”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.
”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 have decided to remove it from our schedule.”
The film is directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, an anti-vaccination activist who co-authored a study, published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1998, linking autism to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.
That study was fully retracted in 2010 when a British medical inquiry found evidence of dishonesty and abuse. Three months later Wakefield was struck off the British medical register.
Scientific reviews including those by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the British National Health Service have consistently found no causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Wakefield has continued to defend his research and conclusions and is championed by the celebrity anti-vaccinationist Jenny McCarthy.
Though De Niro and wife Grace Hightower did not publicly endorse the film, they originally insisted it was ”critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined”.
“Grace and I have a child with autism” he wrote, probably referring to his 18-year-old son Elliot.
De Niro implied his direct intervention in the film’s screening. “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.”
An estimated one in 100 children in Australia, and one in 68 in the United States, are on the autistic spectrum. Autism affects almost four times as many boys than girls, according to Autism Spectrum Australia.
Reflecting the grave misgivings of health practitioners, the documentary filmmaker Penny Lane had published an open letter to the festival’s organisers in Filmmaker Magazine on Thursday, appealing for the festival organisers to reconsider the film’s inclusion.
While issues around truth and ethics in documentary film making could get thorny, this was not the case here, she said.
“This film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.
“And this hoax isn’t cute, or fun, or thought-provoking. Very possibly, some people will walk away from your festival having been convinced, in part because of your good name and the excellence and integrity of your documentary programming, not to vaccinate their children. And very possibly people will die as a result.”