Earlier in the year, it was announced that the Tribeca Film Festival would screen the controversial documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe. The director of the festival, Robert De Niro, said that he wanted to screen the film to start a conversation about the link between vaccines and autism. Public outrage ensued, and soon after the film was withdrawn from the festival.
In an ironic case of déjà vu, the same documentary was due to be shown at a film festival run not far from where I reside. The planned screening by the Castlemaine Local and International Film Festival, or CLIFF, again caused an uproar, with the festival’s director, David Thrussell, receiving death threats for promoting the film before its eventual removal.
Though some believe the decision to screen Vaxxed was little more than a publicity stunt, its withdrawal is a particularly disappointing one. The interest that the picture generated would have been of great benefit to Castlemaine’s economy, and it would have given yours truly an opportunity to review the film.
What reviews that have been written about Vaxxed aren’t exactly glowing. Revered entertainment magazine Variety described it as “one-sided, paranoia-stoking agitprop”, while the Washington Post criticised the movie for failing to disclose the director’s interests in the matter. (Andrew Wakefield is a well-known vaccination sceptic who had his medical licence revoked.)
One might wonder CLIFF decided to screen the film despite its overwhelmingly negative reception. A possible theory suggested by locals is that there is a level of sympathy for the anti-vaccination movement in Castlemaine. According to ABC News Australia, the vaccination rate in the wider Castlemaine area is approximately 80 per cent, or 10 per cent less than the Australia-wide average.
But these residents are still in the minority – most parents are happy to have their children immunised, and their decision to do so is made easier by government-funded vaccination programs. And as the reviews for Vaxxed show, those already in favour of vaccines are unlikely to be swayed by the documentary’s partisan arguments.
What’s more, there’s already been a documentary produced about vaccines, one which takes a far more balanced approach to the issue. Jabbed, directed by Dr Sonya Pemberton, examines the potential ill-effects (no pun intended) of vaccines without resorting to fear-mongering or melodrama. The film’s message makes clear that the risks of not being vaccinated are far greater than any potential side-effects.
It is possible to create a film which challenges the social norm; a film can talk about a controversial subject without causing distress or controversy. The commotion generated by Vaxxed, in both New York and Castlemaine, proves it is unable to do either. The one thing that can be said of the film, though, is that it’s a conversation starter – of the long, heated, and divisive kind. Given this, the cancellation of its screening was probably for the best.