The Vaccine Controversy, Film Festivals & Free Speech

Few mediums are as consuming as film. The journalist Walter Lippman viewed media, and film in particular, as a useful device for distracting the ‘bewildered’ public from matters of greater importance which were best left to the ‘rational’ class. Film has, likewise, been a useful tool of propaganda for political regimes throughout contemporary history – and this continues to be the case. At its opposing extreme, film embodies one of the greatest liberal ideals of modernity: freedom of speech.

The limits of freedom of speech have always been tested through film, and the ability to push the boundaries of this liberal bedrock through this medium serves as an ongoing assurance that our liberties are still intact.

Despite this, film regulatory bodies have the power to control and prevent film distribution – as do local councils. But when bureaucratic red tape is taken out of the equation, there’s really only one way a film can be stopped – and that is by organised boycott.

Plenty of films court controversy, and the controversies in question have a habit of tapping into society’s most deeply held moral revulsions of the present time. The Exorcist famously exploited blasphemy in 1970s Britain. The bestiality movie documenting Bodil Joensen’s sexual interactions with various animals, known colloquially as ‘Animal Farm’, continues to court repugnance as a cultural talking point decades later, and has been a focal point of several documentaries and TV shows since it first surfaced in 1981. Vaxxed, the documentary about Andrew Wakefield’s claim of a causal link between vaccines and autism, is perhaps the defining controversial film of our age.

Andrew Wakefield is a former gastroenterologist who published a 1998 study which alleged to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study, later found to be fraudulent, led to a decline in vaccination rates across the USA, UK and Ireland, and a corresponding increase in incidences of measles and mumps.

Wakefield, who has since had his original paper withdrawn from medical journal The Lancet and his medical licensed revoked, is the recognisable face of the vaccine controversy – and his status as a pariah has followed him throughout his career as an anti-vaccine activist.

Vaxxed is distinct from Animal Farm and The Exorcist in its lack of grotesque horror and visual obscenity. But, by seemingly threatening the welfare of children through its central message – or by casting doubt over the motives of the medical practitioners who care for our children, depending on where you stand on the matter – it serves as a powerfully divisive object of moral disgust.

Because of this, it should come as no surprise that Vaxxed was met with such outcry when Tribeca Film Festival announced it would screen the film during its’ 2016 edition. Vaxxed does more than simply lay out Wakefield’s case against the MMR vaccine; it aims to expose a global conspiracy that runs through the CDC and the pharmaceutical industry, helped by medical and scientific professionals who willingly collude in the cover up of the alleged vaccine and autism link for financial gain.

Following a boycott and petition for the removal of the film from Tribeca’s programme, the film was eventually pulled. This decision resulted in a whirlwind of media furore which re-opened the vaccine debate, with campaigners arguing that the film promoted a dangerous anti-vaccine message – a claim refuted by the filmmakers, who maintain that they simply take a pro-vaccine stance. The boycott, and eventual ejection of the film from the festival, ultimately elevated the film to untold levels of notoriety.

Although a reasonably young film festival, founded in 2002 by Robert DeNiro and producers Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatcoff, Tribeca is one of the most highly celebrated destinations on the film festival circuit. To have a film pulled from any festival under such circumstances, and especially from one of such iconic stature, is a powerful PR push for a filmmaker of any pedigree.

The subject matter, and Wakefield’s involvement, was always going to court a degree of controversy – even if that controversy stayed within the parameters of scientific op-ed columns, or forums frequented by hardcore festival goers. But the Tribeca affair ensured that Vaxxed superseded Blockbuster titles such as Batman Vs. Superman for social media attention, despite the millions pumped into the latter’s marketing budget.

The Streisand Effect describes the phenomenon in which incidents, when censored, become immediately interesting to onlookers for the fact that they aren’t ‘allowed’ to know about it; the more an event is hidden, the more people want to find out for themselves what the big fuss is about. Outside of the film community, we can observe how controversial media personalities such as Milo Yiannopoulos – the human physical embodiment of the Streisand Effect – have cultivated a lucrative career from an endless outrage feedback loop with an angry audience that continually vies for his censorship despite their better judgement. By the laws of human nature, it’s just counter-intuitive to silence a film, full stop.

And more than anything, as touched upon in this article’s introduction, film is a vital medium of free expression. Whether the topic is vaccination, blasphemy, or indeed any other kind of heresy, the right to express views – no matter how wrong, mad or bad – must be protected. Furthermore, film festivals are platforms for free expression and depend on immunity to perform this role.

The Vaxxed controversy highlights a need for measures within festivals that allows filmmakers to express contentious messages without putting the festivals under undue pressure and scrutiny for perceived endorsement; festivals have an important role to play in showing audiences points of view sometimes hidden from humanity, and their role as a platform should mean that they are not tarred with the brand toxicity of the films they screen.

However, as demonstrated by the fallout from Wakefield’s medical study, there is a very real risk of real-world harm resulting from alarmist messages that can’t be ignored. Declining to pull Vaxxed from its programme, but offering detractors a platform to challenge the film’s message in a Q&A following the screening, could have been a potential solution for Tribeca Film Festival. The only way to counter ‘bad’ speech, after all, is with more speech. Unfortunately, it seemed that the furore backed Tribeca into a corner with little room to negotiate, and the festival ultimately acquiesced to the concerns of the film’s critics at the cost of shunning filmmakers, who are quite rightly the first priority for film festivals.

But in any case, not all festivals will have the time or resources to accommodate opposing viewpoints to films with challenging messages. Furthermore, it isn’t fair that they’d have to weigh up their programme on that basis when their primary purpose is to celebrate creative talent.

While some who opposed Vaxxed saw the rescinded screening invitation as a success, it must be acknowledged that it sets a worrying precedent for filmmakers who want to shed light on unspeakable subjects, and it forces festivals into the unreasonable position of making a political point ahead of their solidarity with filmmakers.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the Vaxxed affair is that festivals should not be penalised for showcasing controversial, offensive or even outright false content, and by pressuring festivals to pull films from their programme we erode their ability to honour creative talent by its own merits and perform as a truly neutral platform – not to mention we inadvertently bolster the credibility of our opponents without ever truly challenging their positions. When the next heretical film appears on the circuit, here’s hoping we remember the lessons of Vaxxed so that the content can be challenged appropriately without compromising the freedoms we are afforded through film.

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