In a decision that has dredged up the widely debunked link between vaccines and autism, the Tribeca Film Festival plans to screen a film 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anti-vaccination activist and an author of a study, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, in 1998, that was retracted in 2010. In addition to the retraction of the study, which involved 12 children, Britain’s General Medical Council, citing ethical violations and failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest, revoked Mr. Wakefield’s medical license.
On the festival’s website, the biographical material about Mr. Wakefield does not mention that he was stripped of his license or that his Lancet study was retracted.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.”
On Friday, Robert De Niro, one of the 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.”
Mr. De Niro’s statement, posted on Facebook on Friday, 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, “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 on Facebook had generated hundreds of comments.
The trailer for the film, filled with dramatic music, opens with the words “Are Our Children Safe?” on a black screen with billowing smoke that appears to be spewing 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.” Mr. 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 measles–mumps–rubella vaccine that children are supposed to receive between 12 and 15 months of age. 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 to show the film 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 documentary filmmaker Penny Lane (“Our Nixon”) published an open letter to the festival’s organizers in Filmmaker Magazine on Thursday, suggesting that including “Vaxxed” in the documentary section “threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers in your doc slate, but the field in general.”
She added that while the subject of ethics and truthfulness in documentary can be fraught, “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.”
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical School, called the decision to show the film “particularly sad” because the Tribeca festival receives attention far beyond New York City.
“The people who put on the Tribeca Film Festival are very prestigious and they draw a very thoughtful audience and it’s implicit that if they have suggested this film they think that there’s some merit in it, and more importantly, merit to Wakefield’s message,” Dr. Schaffner said. “All of us are out talking about it reassuring parents, children, anyone who wants to pay attention to this issue that vaccines are safe and effective, and they certainly do not cause autism, and that Dr. Wakefield was a fraud and had his license removed over this very event.”
According to the festival’s website, “Vaxxed” will be screened only once, on April 24, the festival’s closing day, with a talk with the director and the film’s subjects to follow.