The documentary “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” arrives here Friday in a firestorm of controversy.
The film, which opens at the Glenwood Arts theater, makes the familiar though widely discredited argument that childhood vaccines contribute to the rise of autism.
It also alleges “a pattern of data manipulation, fraud and corruption at the highest levels of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” according to statements in the film by William Thompson, a CDC psychologist involved in vaccine/autism studies.
Thompson’s audio comments, secretly recorded during phone conversations with an anti-vaccine researcher, accuse the CDC of covering up a link between the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine and autism in African-American boys.
Things kicked into high gear in April when actor Robert De Niro, the father of an autistic child, scheduled “Vaxxed” at his Tribeca Film Festival, then withdrew the movie after a chorus of criticism from the medical community.
Glenwood Arts operator Brian Mossman says he booked the film because patrons repeatedly asked him to show it.
“In 35 years of theater operation we’ve played lots of controversial films,” Mossman said. “So that part of it doesn’t bother me. No doubt I’ll get some calls from people in the health industry who oppose it.
“But it’s already the hottest pre-sale ticket we’ve ever had. A week before it opens, the 8:15 Friday screening (was) almost totally sold out — more than 450 of 500 seats.”
One of the attractions is anti-vaccine researcher Andrew Wakefield, who directed the film and will hold Q&A sessions after screenings Friday and Saturday.
Contacted by telephone in Winter Park, Fla., Wakefield said the pressure placed on De Niro to drop the film was “counterproductive. Profoundly counterproductive. In the end people will not be told what they can see or hear, or what they will be forced to inject into their children’s bodies.”
“It reminds me of ‘The Exorcist.’ When I was a kid in England I was too young to see it. But I walked past the theater where priests had banners saying, ‘If you see this movie you’ll go to hell.’ And the ticket lines went around the block.”
Wakefield is a British gastroenterologist who was involved in a 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine to a spike in autism. His findings were published in the prominent medical journal The Lancet, which later withdrew its support when Wakefield was accused of falsifying data. In 2010 he was stripped of his medical license.
Strictly speaking, he said, “Vaxxed” is not an anti-vaccine movie.
“It’s about fraud at the Centers for Disease Control,” he said.
“We’ve had documentaries that accuse the president of the United States of deliberately bringing down the World Trade Center. They got shown without incident. So why can’t a documentary challenge the orthodoxy of vaccines?”
Dr. Stephen J. Lauer has some ideas on that subject. An associate professor and associate chair of pediatrics at the University of Kansas Hospital, Lauer gets frustrated that science debunked years ago keeps coming back.
“Look, it’s a terrible diagnosis and everybody wants to find a cause. But the cause of autism, whatever it is, is not vaccines.
“You either believe in a worldwide conspiracy of pediatricians, nurses, medical assistants, the CDC, that we’re all in collusion in a vast plan to make millions and harm children. Or you don’t believe that.”
No smart lawyer has launched a massive lawsuit to prove Wakefield’s contention, Lauer said. “There is convincing, incontrovertible evidence from dozens of studies and thousands of children that show no link between vaccines and autism. Now we’ll never stop looking. We’ll never close the books. But it gets discouraging to see the same thing coming up over and over again.”
Reviews of the film have been lukewarm.
Variety critic Joe Leydon categorized the documentary as “a slickly produced but scientifically dubious hodgepodge of free-floating paranoia, heart-rending imagery — lots of shots of cute infants who reportedly were damaged by vaccines — and anti-Big Pharma conspiracy mongering.”
Eric Kohn of IndieWire opines that “there’s a lot of sad piano music and distressed parents in ‘Vaxxed,’ but next to nothing in terms of real science.”
But Wakefield reports that physicians, after seeing the film, say they will start writing letters for parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children, as is required by virtually every public school in America.
Which in turn brings warnings from the medical establishment that the anti-vaccination movement is behind a resurgence of measles and whooping cough, diseases once thought to be virtually eradicated in the U.S.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s movie coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.
Meet the filmmakers
“Vaxxed” director Andrew Wakefield, producer Polly Tommey and Sheila Ealey, who appears in the documentary, will hold Q&A sessions at the 5:10 and 8:15 p.m. screenings Friday and Saturday at the Glenwood Arts, 3707 W. 95th St. in Overland Park. See fineartsgroup.com.