The Tribeca Film Festival has only just begun — with its annual filmmaker party, held at Spring Street Studios April 12 — but among its ambitious slate of 101 movies, 40 talks and 23 VR and immersive experiences, there’s already been one controversy.
It centered around “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” the documentary from Dr. Andrew Wakefield that draws a widely disputed connection between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Festival founder Robert De Niro said he pushed for the anti-vaccination film in the lineup, and then in the face of backlash, reversed his opinion and decided not to screen the movie.
Was the decision censorship, or just good sense? The filmmakers with films in this year’s festival seemed unanimously relieved at the final outcome.
“I didn’t want to show my film alongside that movie,” said director Cecilia Aldarondo, who made the documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart,” about her uncle’s struggle with the AIDS crisis. “If anything, it was an embarrassing moment for Tribeca, because it was an incident of the filmmaking community holding Tribeca’s feet to the fire and saying, ‘You need to stand by what you do.’ “
Other movie makers had been afraid that showing the film could have had unforeseen consequences. “I am really excited they pulled the film from the festival,” said Rob Meyer, director of “Little Boxes,” the comedy starring Melanie Lynskey and Nelsan Ellis. “When I heard that Tribeca was going to lend its name to something that was clearly not grounded in science, and could have scared a lot of people into not vaccinating their kids, and causing a public health crisis, I was upset.”
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Overall, the fest’s filmmakers disagreed with accusations of censorship. “That movie can still exist; anyone can see it,” said Sophia Takal, director of “Always Shine.” “The festival is just saying that they don’t feel like showing it. It is not censorship when they reject a lot of movies, so I don’t know why it would be considered censorship in this case. But maybe I would feel differently if it was my movie that was being pulled.”
The drama made documentarians like Ferne Pearlstein — who directed “The Last Laugh,” about comedic taboos such as humor and the Holocaust — curious about what will happen when the own films screen.
“When I first embarked on this project in 1998, I thought my film would be getting a reception like [‘Vaxxed’] with protesters, angry people, hate mail, and now it is getting a very different response,” Pearlstein said. “So as someone who made a controversial film, I don’t know what to expect.”
The 2016 Tribeca Film Festival opens tonight with “The First Monday in May,” Andrew Rossi’s documentary about the Metropolitan Museum’s costume gala. Anyone who wants to see “Vaxxed,” meanwhile, will have to look beyond the fest: The Cinema Libre Studios release is showing at New York’s Angelika Theater before opening on the West Coast this Friday at Santa Monica’s Laemmle Monica Film Center and Pasadena’s Laemmle Playhouse 7.