Robert De Niro Pulls Anti-Vaccine Documentary From Tribeca Film Festival


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Robert De Niro, a founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, in January.

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Dennis Van Tine/Associated Press.

Facing a storm of criticism over its plan to show a documentary about the widely debunked link between vaccines and autism, the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday pulled the film from its schedule next month.

In a statement, Robert De Niro, a founder of the festival, wrote: “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.”

The film, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” was directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, the author of a study that was published in the British medical journal The Lancet and then retracted in 2010. Mr. Wakefield’s medical license was also revoked over his failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest and ethics violations.

Information about the film no longer appears on the festival’s website, but on Friday, the site, tribecafilm.com, did not mention Mr. Wakefield’s revoked license or the 2010 retraction, saying instead that the study “would catapult Wakefield into becoming one of the most controversial figures in the history of medicine.” And on Twitter, Mr. Wakefield described the film as a “whistle-blower documentary.”

A festival spokeswoman said on Saturday that she had no further comment about what specifically in the film raised concerns for Mr. De Niro after he initially added it to the festival. The film was to have been shown just once, on April 24, and was to be followed by a discussion with the director and subjects of the film.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said on Saturday that he believed “the entire board as well as Mr. De Niro have learned a lot in the last several days.”

“My hat is off to them for listening, thinking about it, discussing it and responding,” he said.

Nevertheless, Dr. Schaffner said, it was troubling for scientists that a film promoting “discredited ideas” got so close to a forum as prestigious as the Tribeca Film Festival.

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“It gave these fraudulent ideas a face and a position and an energy that many of us thought they didn’t deserve,” he said. “We’re all for ongoing reasonable debate and discussion, but these are ideas that have been proven to be incorrect many, many, many times over the past 15 years.”

When the festival’s plan to show the film was made public on Tuesday, filmmakers and medical experts were vocal in their condemnation of it. The documentarian Penny Lane (“Our Nixon”) posted an open letter on Thursday in Filmmaker Magazine telling the festival that the screening “threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers in your doc slate, but the field in general.”

On Saturday, Ms. Lane said she was “amazed” that the festival had decided to cancel the film screening. In an email, she described it as a “momentous and significant” moment for documentary filmmaking.

“This is completely unprecedented,” she said. “Has a documentary film ever been pulled from a festival lineup once revealed to be a fraud? I really don’t think so.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Lane said she feared that on some level the damage had already been done by drawing attention to Mr. Wakefield’s work and granting it a seal of approval, however brief.

”This wasn’t about exposure; it was about credibility,” she said. “The kind of credibility an A-list film festival, or any important, respected gatekeeper, can give you, especially once you’ve been discredited by everyone else.”

Now that the film had been pulled from the lineup, Mr. Wakefield and supporters of his work can champion it as a documentary that has been “banned” by the powers that be, “and that will add to his conspiracy theory aura,” she said.

Doctors and infectious disease experts also spoke out. “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,” Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said in an interview on Friday.

As the criticism mounted on Friday, Mr. De Niro defended the film, saying that he and his wife, Grace Hightower, have a child with autism and that “we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined.”

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