Anti-Vaccine Film, Pulled From Tribeca Film Festival, Draws Crowd at Showing


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Del Bigtree, a producer and co-writer of “Vaxxed,” waited outside the Angelika Film Center to watch a screening of the film.

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Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

A roiling controversy over the truthfulness and intent of a documentary about the widely debunked link between vaccines and autism did not keep theatergoers away from its premiere on Friday. Several dozen people (and more than a handful of reporters) arrived for the first showing of “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan, along with a producer and co-writer of the film, and some of its distributors.

The movie, about the supposed connection between autism and vaccines, had been accepted for a screening later this month at the Tribeca Film Festival and then suddenly removed amid criticism. Robert De Niro, a founder of the festival, initially supported the showing but then decided to drop it, saying that upon reviewing it with scientific professionals, he felt it would not contribute to a positive discussion about public health issues.

Still, moviegoers were eager to see it on Friday. Bonnie Peters drove from Palm City, Fla. “Regardless of whether your stance is pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine, you should have the opportunity to know all the facts,” said Ms. Peters, 66, who described herself as “more pro-information,” and who has two grandsons with autism. “I want to see both sides of the story,” she said. She left the screening in tears.

The film was directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, an author of a 1998 study that suggested the link. The study, published by the British medical journal The Lancet, was retracted in 2010. Though the film mentions the retraction, it does not note that the British General Medical Council revoked Mr. Wakefield’s medical license, citing ethics violations and financial conflicts of interest. Mr. Wakefield appears in “Vaxxed” as an expert on the topic.

“Wakefield doesn’t just have a dog in this fight; he is the dog,” the critic Eric Kohn wrote in his review of the film for the cinema site Indiewire. Calling it “one-sided propaganda,” he added that the film walks a “troubling ethical line, pushing an outrageous agenda only evident to viewers willing to look beneath its paranoid surface.”

The film’s distributor, Cinema Libre, has presented the film as an outlet for claims by Dr. William Thompson, a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an author of a 2004 study on vaccinations. But Dr. Thompson does not appear in person in the film, nor has he seen it, said Del Bigtree, a producer and co-writer of the film.

Dr. Thompson’s voice is in the film, in conversations recorded without his knowledge (as the film notes). He is still employed by the C.D.C. and would not comment. In 2014, he released a statement saying that while he questioned the 2004 study’s presentation of some data, he would never advise people not to get vaccinated.

A spokeswoman for Reading International, which owns a chain of theaters, including the Angelika, did not respond to requests for comment about how the film came to be shown there.

Cinema Libre, based in Burbank, Calif., has been on both sides of this issue: In 2011, it released “Loving Lampposts: Living Autistic,” a documentary by Todd Drezner, whose son has autism. Mr. Drezner’s film argued against a connection between autism and vaccines, and for autism-spectrum acceptance. Mr. Drezner said he was “profoundly disappointed,” as he wrote in an open letter, in the company’s support for “Vaxxed.” (Cinema Libre did not respond to his open letter or a private email, he said.)

Mr. Bigtree, the “Vaxxed” co-producer, attended the screening and said he had not watched Mr. Drezner’s film. “I don’t want to be influenced by somebody else’s creative thoughts,” he said.

For many theatergoers, the controversy over “Vaxxed” was a selling point. “It makes me want to see it all the more, if the scientific community is that scared,” said Olivia Wolf, 48, a stay-at-home mother from New Jersey who brought her 9-year-old daughter to an afternoon screening. Subsequent screenings that included talks with Mr. Wakefield were sold out.

“Vaxxed” itself vacillates between vilifying vaccines and saying that they save lives. Sowing this kind of confusion, Mr. Drezner said in an email, may harm the very people it aims to save. “All the energy we spend fighting over a debunked vaccine conspiracy theory,” he wrote, “is energy we’re not spending on working with autistic people to help them better thrive in the world today.”

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