Above: the trailer for Vaxxed, promoting the discredited claims of a quack
Robert De Niro’s support for the fraudulent quack Andrew Wakefield, struck off by the GMC in 2010 for “callous disregard for the distress and pain of children” has raised fears that American parents will be unwilling to give their children the MMR -measles mumps and rubella – jab, needlessly putting thousands of children at risk.
Although De Niro has withdrawn Wakefield’s film Vaxxed from the Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro has continued to back Wakefield and told the Today show: “I think the movie is something people should see … There is a link [between the MMR jab and autism] and they are saying there isn’t and there are … other things there.”
In this age of conspiracy theories (especially prevalent, it seems, in the US), the very fact of the film being withdrawn in response to an outcry against it by the scientific and medical “establishment” may well only serve to give publicity and credibility to the dangerous, dishonest fraud and quack Wakefield and his discredited claims of a link between the MMR jab and autism.
Below is an open letter by film director Todd Drezner, who is himself (like De Niro) the father of a boy with autism, to the distributors of Vaxxed. It was first published at left brain right brain:
Dear Cinema Libre,
I’m writing to explain why I’m so disappointed in your decision to distribute “Vaxxed.” I have three main objections:
1) Perhaps of most relevance to Cinema Libre is that Andrew Wakefield has assembled his film using unethical and dishonest editing techniques. As documented here, the “Vaxxed” trailer splices excerpts from two different phone calls together and then inserts a narrator giving an interpretation of those calls that is not supported by the facts. And this is merely one example from a brief trailer. Who knows how many misleading edits Wakefield has made in the full film?
Given Cinema Libre’s commitment to the idea that documentaries can make a social impact, I would think you would want to be associated with filmmakers who follow ethical practices and journalistic standards when making documentaries. When a dishonest filmmaker like Wakefield receives distribution and a theatrical release, it undermines all documentary filmmakers. We depend on the trust of our audiences. Your decision to support a dishonest film like “Vaxxed” destroys that trust. Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane outlines these issues nicely here.
2) Cinema Libre’s blog post about “Vaxxed” refers to “the suppression of medical data by a governmental agency that may well be contributing to a significant health crisis.” This is, I’m sorry to say, no more than a fever dream. First, as you will remember from watching “Loving Lampposts,” the autism “epidemic” can be explained by a combination of changing diagnostic criteria, increasing awareness of autism, and the benefits of receiving a diagnosis (in terms of the access to services and support the diagnosis provides).
Secondly, the CDC “whistleblower” around whom the trailer (and I assume the film) revolves did not reveal anything nearly as sinister as the trailer suggests. It is true that William Thompson of the CDC revealed to Dr. Brian Hooker that a 2004 study of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism supposedly found an association between the vaccine and autism in African American males.
Before I say anything about that finding, let’s note what that finding rules out: any association between the MMR vaccine and any other group besides African American males. Even if Thompson’s assertion were true (it’s not), it still doesn’t support the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism in the many people who are not African American males.
But what about the supposed link between the vaccine and African American males? It’s nothing. Basically, the original study of the association between the vaccine and autism did not leave out African Americans on purpose. Rather, it did so to eliminate “confounders” — that is, any factor other than the vaccine that could have been associated with autism. The authors of the study wanted to be sure that any effect they saw was caused by the MMR and not something else. Dr. Hooker’s “re-analysis” of the study does not account for confounders properly and even if it did, the population of African American males in the study is too small to support any broad conclusions. And one more time, even if the supposed link between African American males and the MMR vaccine were significant, it still rules out any link between the vaccine and all other groups. You can read about these issues in much more detail here and here.
It’s well known that Andrew Wakefield’s research into the MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. His film is based on equally poor science.
3) Despite Richard Castro’s statement on your blog that the Tribeca Film Festival succumbed to “pressure to censor” “Vaxxed,” there was no censorship. As I’m sure you’re aware, the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech prohibits the government from restricting speech. The Tribeca Film Festival is not government. It is a private organization that is free to screen, or not screen, any film it chooses for any reason. Indeed, Tribeca rejects the work of thousands of filmmakers every year. I’m sure Cinema Libre rejects many filmmakers as well. Are they being censored? Of course not.
On the “Vaxxed” website, Andrew Wakefield and Producer Del Bigtree claim that they were “denied due process” when Tribeca decided not to screen “Vaxxed.” This is absurd. There is no such thing as due process when it comes to the decisions of a film festival selection committee. Nor should there be. If such a thing existed, every prestigious film festival would spend all its time sifting through complaints from unhappy filmmakers. There will always be unhappy filmmakers who are denied admission to film festivals. Andrew Wakefield is now one of them. But he is not a censored filmmaker.
On a personal note, I was and remain grateful for the work Cinema Libre did to promote “Loving Lampposts” when it was released. You got the film screened at venues I could not have and publicized it through news coverage I did not have access to. I hoped and believed that along the way, you came to appreciate the film’s message that autistic people can thrive when they are accepted and when they receive the support they need to function in a world not built for them. Apparently, and much to my dismay, this message did not sink in.
By releasing “Vaxxed,” Cinema Libre is actively harming thousands of autistic people. While we should be discussing ways to best support autistic people and help them lead fulfilling lives, you would instead have us follow a discredited scientist and dishonest filmmaker down a rabbit hole that leads only to long debunked conspiracy theories. I am profoundly disappointed.
I don’t expect that Cinema Libre will change its decision. But given our long business relationship, I felt I owed you this explanation of where I stand. I hope that sometime in the future you may find ways to undo the damage you are about to cause.