Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival has recently decided to cancel the screening of one of its most controversial films. In doing so, De Niro has taken a powerful stance against a threat to society that largely goes unnoticed—scientific illiteracy.
Politicians have demonstrated the extent of the damage that can be done when they fail to grasp, consider or even value objective reality. An incomplete understanding of women’s reproductive health, or a politicized notion of climate change as a liberal hoax, can and does result in people losing rights, individuals being harmed, our ecosystems being threatened—and often, destroyed.
The film in question, “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” is a documentary asserting an association between vaccinations and autism. The premise of the film, as well as the concerns of many “anti-vaxxers” stem from a fraudulent article published in 1998, which raised concerns surrounding MMR vaccines. The study has been described as “the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.” The author behind the study, Andrew Wakefield, was stripped of his license to practice medicine, and would later go on to release the film in question.
De Niro, the son of an autistic father, initially had plans to screen the film at the prestigious film festival to allow “opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.” The famed actor’s decision to screen the film was met with intense opposition, but De Niro, who also has a child with autism spectrum disorder, maintained that “it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined.”
And in a sense, Robert De Niro is right. It is crucial to consider all of the relevant factors in an issue, particularly in cases where one side, such as the “anti-vax” movement, is heavily unpopular. Film, as do all forms of art, presents a platform for individuals to express ideas, regardless of their popularity, and as such, remains an important medium for controversial topics.
De Niro finally made the decision to pull the film from the festival after discussing the matter with members of the scientific community, a including a Vanderbilt medical professor who later recalled, “the entire board as well as Mr. De Niro have learned a lot in the last several days.” Following the meeting, De Niro said “we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”
And this is the significance of that decision. De Niro, someone who can personally relate to a provocative topic—one that affects him and his family deeply—can sit down with those who may know more about the issue and have an open conversation about it. And moreover, he is willing to change his mind on an issue if and when there is a sufficient reason to do so.
By pulling the film from the festival, De Niro sent a loud and clear message—that this film does not promote the sort of discourse we need, and that factual engagement on provocative matters is better than empty assertions. Furthermore, we, as a society, ought to be able to acknowledge and respect objective reality by remaining willing to change our minds if there is a compelling reason to do so, despite how uncomfortable or inconvenient the truth may be.
As such, De Niro didn’t shy away from the idea of changing his mind out of embarrassment for being wrong; instead, he accepted his misunderstanding and changed his mind. He acted in accordance with what he now knows to be true: that a faux study of 12 children, with altered data, has cost the world far too many lives, while scientific illiteracy that has safeguarded horrific conditions that should have been eradicated years ago. And that subsequent follow-up studies featuring over a million children has found no relationship between vaccinations and autism spectrum disorder.