Exclusive: Why Filmmaker Penny Lane Stirred Up the Tribeca 'Vaxxed' Controversy
"There's no such thing as censorship in a film festival. You submit 10,000 films to Sundance and they only show 200. Are they censoring the other 9,800 films? No."
It all happened very fast. First, documentary filmmaker Penny Lane, whose film NUTS! screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival, noticed something strange in the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival programming lineup. Alongside films about the Holocaust, the Syrian refugee crisis, abortion, and the right to end one's own life was a film called Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Although the film's subject matter, anti-vaccination, piqued Lane's interest, she didn't bat an eye—film festivals often screen films about controversial topics. But she became very disconcerted when she recognized the film director's name.
How could Tribeca allow Andrew Wakefield, one of the anti-vaccination movement's zealots, and a man who has been extensively discredited by the scientific community at large, to use the festival as a platform for his mendacious and dangerous beliefs?
"Dear Tribeca Film Festival," wrote Lane in an open letter on her Facebook page. "I love you but you made a very serious mistake."
Lane's letter goes on to indict the festival for succumbing to the interests of "a quack," thus "perpetuating Wakefield's fraud." She criticizes Tribeca's official response — "We are a forum, not a judge" — as a clear evasion of responsibility in the realm of documentary ethics.
Last week, Robert De Niro, a co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, defended the festival's actions. In a statement, he said, "Grace [Hightower, his wife] and I have a child with autism and we believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined." This weekend, De Niro changed course and pulled the film from the lineup altogether.
No Film School caught Lane on the phone mid-road trip while pulled over in a McDonald's parking lot. We discussed the snowball effect of her open letter, the nebulous grey area of documentary ethics, the potential precedent set by Tribeca's decision to pull the film, and more.
"You are making a certain kind of promise when you say you are making a documentary film. I think that's something that people should take very seriously."
NFS: What compelled you to write the open letter in the first place?
Lane: I'm not a Mr. Activist Guy. I'm not an internet outrage aggregator. That's not my style. But I've spent the last eight years thinking about the issue of quackery. I just finished a movie about a quack, NUTS!, which I took to Sundance, so I've spent a lot of time thinking really seriously about what a quack is, how a quack works, and why people fall for them. And then there's the issue of documentary ethics. When we—documentary filmmakers—say to audiences, "I have made a documentary film," we're making a certain kind of claim about truth. It's a very gray issue that has a lot of [room for] debate, but there's no gray area when it comes to someone using the tool of documentary film to fool people in a way that is going to harm them. That's over the line. The combination of quackery and documentary ethics is what compelled me to write the letter.
NFS: What do you think about Robert De Niro's decision to pull the documentary from Tribeca's lineup?
Lane: I was amazed. I really wasn't expecting that. I don't know if anyone was. I think it was a great decision. It's unfortunate, because, of course, pulling the film comes with its own set of problems. People are going to be concerned about censorship. There's some press today that suggests today that some people do think the choice to pull the film was the wrong choice. I think that's a legitimate point of view; it's not the point of view that I share, obviously, because I spent a lot of time thinking very hard about this before I personally said that I thought [Tribeca] should pull it. I thought about the various choices that were left for Tribeca after they made the bad choice to put the film in the festival in the first place, and I think that pulling it was the better choice of the bad choices.
There's actually a really interesting parallel here. This Andrew Wakefield character wrote a journal article in 1998 in a very prestigious medical journal called The Lancet—it's like the British equivalent of the Journal of the American Medical Association—which went on to retract the article because the study was fraudulent. They had so many problems with it that they didn't even just write an editorial update for the article; they pulled it from the journal. And that's very rare.
"I wasn't saying the film shouldn't be seen [at all]. I was saying the film shouldn't be seen in the context of a film festival that has traditionally had integrity and excellence in its documentary programming."
This is the same thing. This is a prestigious film festival that decided to give [Wakefield] the stamp of approval — that he's a legitimate documentary filmmaker with an important point of view—and they're pulling it. They're like, "We made a mistake, and now we're reversing it." But here's the sad thing. Almost 20 years later, Andrew Wakefield always puts the word "Lancet" in his fucking bio. Because, you know, it's true: they did publish his article. So he's going to get to say the word "Lancet," and all of his followers will get to say the word "Lancet" forever. You don't have to go on to say, "Well, then they pulled it." So, 20 years from now, will he [put] "Tribeca Film Festival filmmaker" in his bio? In a way, he's right; he'll be able to do that. It's really unfortunate.
That was the original source of my dismay: the idea that [Wakefield] was going to get this credential, this stamp of respectability. [I wasn't angry about the fact that] he made the film and that someone was showing it. I'm not a fascist. I'm not going to try to prevent people from speaking. I wasn't saying the film shouldn't be seen [at all]. I was saying the film shouldn't be seen in the context of a film festival that has traditionally had integrity and excellence in its documentary programming, which suggests to the audience that that's what this film is — that it has integrity and that it's honest. That's really bad.
I'm glad they pulled it, despite the fact that I understand people's concerns about what kind of a precedent it might set.
"If you're concerned about film festivals bowing to pressure, you should really be concerned about film festivals bowing to pressure to show this movie."
NFS: Where do you think that fine line between curation and censorship lies, in the festival context specifically?
Lane: There's no such thing as censorship in a film festival. You submit 10,000 films to Sundance and they only show 200 — are they censoring the other 9,800 films? No.
The concern I do understand, which I saw on Indiewire today — and I disagree with this premise, by the way, even though I understand — is why people in the film community might [think] it's a bad precedent to show that, if there's enough protest, film festivals will pull films. I understand that that would be unfortunate if that were the effect of this. But I think in this case, that's a misguided response. First of all, Tribeca is getting way, way, way more flack now for having pulled the film than they did for having put it in the festival in the first place. The general public doesn't even give a shit. The general public didn't even know [Tribeca was screening this movie], and didn't understand why someone like me would be upset about it. They were like, "What? They're showing a movie! Why not hear all sides of the issue?" Meanwhile, the very noisy anti-vaxxer community was like, "Yay, Tribeca, we love you!" And now, those trolls are after them. Now, [Tribeca] will get tens of thousands of complaints from these people, who are going to accuse them of censorship and [colluding with] Big Pharma. The amount of flack they got from me and a couple other people in the film community was nothing compared to to flack that they're getting from these—sorry—maniacs. If you're concerned about film festivals bowing to pressure, you should really be concerned about film festivals bowing to pressure to show this movie.
Anti-vaccination is not my life. It's not what I want to spend all my time talking about. I wrote a letter from a very specific point of view, which is that of a filmmaker. I tried not to get into [the politics]. I try not paint all the anti-vaxxers with one brush, because it's not fair; there are a lot of psychotic internet trolls, but I'm sure there are a lot of very nice, normal, sane anti-vaxxers, but they're not, unfortunately, who I have to deal with right now. Forgive me for making fun of them a little bit.
If you're worried about film festivals caving to public pressure, let's see if they cave to the 30,000-some people who signed the "Bring this movie back to Tribeca" Change.org petition in the past 24 hours. That's a lot more pressure than me writing a fucking Facebook post.
"When you're programming documentary films, one of the qualifications that you're considering as a festival programmer is a sense of integrity — or maybe even just not lying or harming people."
NFS: Are film festivals ethically responsible for the films they screen?
Lane: I think that's a really interesting question. I think you should ask the film festival programmers what they think about it. It would be interesting to know. Obviously, they're in a position where they are judging films based on a perception, to the best of their ability, of integrity. And that would be true for a fiction film and a nonfiction film. One of the things they're looking for is certain kinds of standards of excellence and integrity. If you see a fiction film that's full of, I don't know, animal torture, you don't show that movie in your festival because it doesn't show integrity on the part of the filmmaker. If you get a film from someone who's known to be a white supremacist, you might not show that movie because you don't think that shows integrity.
It's not like a festival programmer is in a position to fact-check the movie. It would be impossible. But I do think that when you're programming documentary films, one of the qualifications that you're considering as a festival programmer is a sense of integrity—or maybe even just not lying or harming people. They do think about that. It seems impossible that they don't.
We all knew that statement from Tribeca was such bullshit. "We are a forum, not a judge"—that's literally crazy. Come on, no one's going to fall for that! Of course you're a judge! And that doesn't mean that you agree with everything that a filmmaker says. But that [statement] was disingenuous.
NFS: Were you ever concerned about the personal repercussions of speaking out against an institution like Tribeca?
Lane: Yeah, I was. And, frankly, I'm not being modest or faux-naive by saying that I'm surprised that I'm on the phone with you right now. I didn't really expect that it would have an impact.
But I do have personal and professional relationships with the Tribeca Film Festival. I've never actually shown a film at their film festival, but that doesn't mean I don't have personal and professional ties with those good people. I did, of course, have to think twice about where I wanted to say something negative about an organization that I more or less respect and admire.
"I knew from the beginning that this was not a regular film festival programming choice."
But I also knew from the beginning that this was not a regular film festival programming choice. It was just so obvious to everyone that knows anything about the industry, or how film festivals work, that this was basically dumped on them. I don't know who did it — I assume some board member or Robert De Niro — but I knew that the programmers that I know there would never have done this. So I knew that by speaking out, I wasn't insulting people that I actually know and respect.
NFS: You were insulting the brand at large.
Lane: Exactly. I doubt we'll ever hear anything else from Tribeca about what happened here, and that's fine, but my suspicion is that the documentary programming staff could not have been happy about this film being in their program.
NFS: There must have been pushback.
Lane: There had to have been. If there wasn't, it was because [the programmers] didn't know who Andrew Wakefield was. Which I don't blame anyone for.
NFS: Are you in any way grateful for the opportunity to engage in this conversation about documentary ethics?
Lane: The only silver lining to this whole stupid thing is that we haven't had this opportunity to renew a conversation, with a new data point, about documentary ethics. What does it mean to say your film is a documentary? What does it mean for a gatekeeper to say that you've made a documentary? Where are the lines between advocacy and fraud? Point of view and lying?
In a world where more and more people are relying on documentary films as an important source of information about the world, I think we need to be talking about it all the time. I don't like it when we fall into a post-modern thing where we're like, "There's no such thing as truth." Fuck that. Your ability as a filmmaker to do whatever kind of creative treatment of the truth you want is great. I just made a documentary that's mostly made-up and animated. So obviously I'm not saying that we all have to be dry journalists who have no point of view. But you are saying something to your audience. You are making a certain kind of promise when you say you are making a documentary film. I think that's something that people should take very seriously.