Tony Earnshaw: Why De Niro was right to pull controversial MMR documentary from festival

Robert De Niro set up the Tribeca Film Festival in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.Robert De Niro set up the Tribeca Film Festival in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Robert De Niro set up the Tribeca Film Festival in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
News that Robert De Niro had acted to withdraw a contentious documentary from his beloved Tribeca Film Festival in New York got me thinking about the nature of film festivals and what they offer to audiences.I ran a film festival for 12 years and was once asked, live on TV, what it meant for the city. 'Recognition,' I replied. 'It proves that the UK film industry exists outside of the M25.'

In the United States the film industry is alive and kicking everywhere. On the west coast it’s Los Angeles and Hollywood. On the East coast it’s New York, and people like De Niro.

The 72-year-old two-time Oscar winner co-founded Tribeca in 2002 to help revitalise downtown New York City in the aftermath 
of the 9/11 attacks. In doing so 
he brought the best of world cinema to the Big Apple along with many of the filmmakers responsible.

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De Niro took it seriously. And in using the festival as a showcase for new films he also created a platform for debate.

So having championed and defended Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe he selected the film to premiere at Tribeca. A feature-length documentary about the alleged link between MMR vaccines and autism from doctor-turned-director Andrew Wakefield, it provoked a storm of protest from medical professionals.

Wakefield’s stance dates back 18 years to a paper he published in The Lancet, which suggested a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and childhood developmental delays.

No other researchers were able to replicate his findings. In 2010 his paper was rescinded. And when the General Medical Council charged Wakefield with dishonesty and abusing developmentally challenged children he was barred from practicing medicine in the UK.

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De Niro’s interest in Vaxxed was personal as well as professional. As the father of an autistic child he wanted the subject debated. “I am not endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination. I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.”

A day later the film was withdrawn. De Niro issued a statement saying that the festival didn’t seek to avoid or 
shy away from controversy. “However we have concerns 
with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it.”

Somewhere in the course of 24 hours Robert De Niro had an epiphany. Or maybe he realised that to screen Vaxxed was to deliberately court controversy – precisely the opposite of enabling considered debate. Nobody wants brickbats…