Tribeca is Not the Steward of Scientific Truth


Abraham Gross, Deputy Opinion Editor

Robert De Niro’s decision to exclude an anti-vaccine documentary from the Tribeca Film Festival was greeted with a collective sigh from many in the scientific community, a victory in the ongoing struggle with those who espouse a link between vaccines and autism. When attacked for the initial inclusion of “Vaxxed,” De Niro justified the festival’s decision by arguing that the film would further discussion, but this was muted by the public paroxysm which followed. While the anti-vaccination movement is without merit, the removal of the contested film undermines the integrity of the Tribeca Film Festival, and does little to prevent the spread of the anti-vaccination movement.

The festival is no stranger to controversial films, and “Vaxxed” would have been accompanied this season by other documentaries which purport to expose or reenact pharmaceutical scandals and document ethically murky medical practices. “Vaxxed” stands out not because of its subject matter, but because of the questionable truth value of its claims. All the same, the idea that a film festival should be responsible for fact-checking the films is an unrealistic and prejudicial expectation. The festival’s submission guidelines do not require films to be truthful or accurate, so it makes little sense why this non-requirement is applied to this film. Besides, criticism of films should be left to critics. Film festivals choose to showcase films for any number of reasons, including originality, artistic expression and a contribution to cultural discussion that De Niro may have been alluding to.

Based on its importance to cultural discourse, the film was more than justified in its inclusion in the festival. Though the broader scientific community does not back the claims of its proponents, the anti-vaccination movement has undoubtedly grown in prominence. The national rise of preventable diseases has been linked to an increase in intentionally unvaccinated children. Several presidential candidates — including the current GOP frontrunner — have either affirmed their belief in vaccine-borne autism, or contested calls for mandatory vaccination. The anti-vaccination debate has become a part of a feverish national discourse on “big pharma,” government overreach and parental control over childcare. Anti-vaxxers may be conspiracy theorists, science deniers or pharmacological luddites, but they are also members of a movement which is beyond quarantine.  

Film festivals are not the crucibles of truth, but the pulse-checkers of society. The screening of “Vaxxed” may have given the anti-vaccination movement publicity, but it does not validate their cause any more than it validates the message of any other challenging or controversial film in the Tribeca catalogue. It may have even helped anti-vaccination naysayers. The scientific community cannot channel its energies towards effective policy against anti-vaxxers without broader public support, and this antidote cannot be administered towards an unknown disease. It is through exposure, not evasion, that society can inoculate itself from the scourge of the anti-vaccination epidemic.

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Email Abraham Gross at [email protected].