Few things better capture the opening of the controversial autism/vaccine documentary VAXXED in New York Friday than the conversation overheard between two women.
“I’m not vaccinating my son until he’s 18 after seeing that,” said the first. “You mean the mumps measles rubella one?” posited the other. “No,” she shot back. “I’m not giving him any.”
Leaving a room at the near-empty Angelika Theater in SoHo, the middle-aged women were two of less than 20 people that showed up to watch the film’s debut. It was a sad opening for any film, much less one that—just four days earlier—was slated to premiere at The Tribeca Film Festival.
The “whistleblower documentary,” set out to prove the link between vaccines and autism by exposing an alleged cover-up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its director, Andrew Wakefield, is the now-discredited scientist behind the paper the launched the autism vaccine debate, published by The Lancet in 1998.
Despite evidence that Wakefield manipulated the data, followed by multiple retractions of the paper, and a piece from the British Medical Journal calling it “complete fraud,” the idea that vaccines cause autism persists. Wakefield, widely recognized as the man who started the conspiracy, seems more determined than ever to keep it alive.
The small crowd was surprising, particularly given the media storm surrounding VAXXED this week.
The documentary sparked the interest of Tribeca’s co-founder Robert De Niro, who has a son of his own with autism. While he told reporters he didn’t directly “endorse” the film, he supported it being shown as a part of his festival. The decision sparked outrage, both among the media and academics, who worried the film’s message posed a risk to public health.
After conferring with others in the scientific community, De Niro pulled the film, saying he no longer felt confident that it would be fueling a productive conversation. The decision left the production company behind the film, Cinema Libre, scrambling to find it a home. Trying to capitalize on the attention, they landed on Angelika Theater. Two days later, at a musty theater with stained red carpet, the international debut had arrived.
Beth Portello, Cinema Libre’s CFO, handed me her card and a pile of papers as she whisked me into the theater minutes before the film began. “All we ask is that you watch it with with an open mind,” she said. Portello went on to say she was skeptical too at first, and is committed to only telling truthful stories, but after watching it, she’s certain it’s the truth.
The film was, in a word, overwhelming. Full of dark music, white type on a black screen, toddlers red faced and screaming, and a hysterical young boy threatening to kill his dad. There were parents weeping over home videos of their kids, and a brother pleading with his parents not to vaccinate his little sister, whom he’s pushing in a swing beside him.
There were symbolic moments, too, like that of the so-called CDC “whistleblower” sticking the files that he saved on a shelf and an open briefcase that was repeatedly filled with papers. There were graphs and charts and numbers, none of which remained long enough to digest. The needle was a recurring image as well, at one point, shown eerily blowing out a cloud of blue smoke.
While unsettling and at times confusing, the film wasn’t enough to convince someone well versed in the world of vaccines and autism that a connection is actually there. But the well versed in these worlds are not the film’s demographic. It’s parents with children who’ve been suddenly been dealt a bad hand and others worried that they will be too.
What the film lacked in clear, comprehensive facts, it made up for in emotion. Image after image of parents with their autistic children filled the screen, most plugged into a specific, gut-wrenching formula. First, home videos, showing a bubbly toddler playing in the grass or an infant giggling in her father’s arms. Second, a foreboding description of the day the child got a vaccine. Third, pictures or video of the child now, often struggling to walk, sit still, not cry.
The mother or father—usually both—would then go into detail about the horrific MMR vaccine. In each scenario, it was the day everything changed. Polly and John Tommey, a couple from the UK, said their son Billy was progressing normally before he received two doses of antibiotics and the MMR vaccine at age 15 months.
Afterwards, they recount through tears, he began having seizures, and banging his head against the floor. He suddenly lack energy and was difficult to connect with. In one particularly harrowing moment, Polly remembers the last night she put him to bed before the vaccine. “I feel like he didn’t ever wake up to the Billy we knew before,” she says crying.
The story, just one of at least six similar in the film, is painful to watch. Enough, one could imagine, to send someone undecided about vaccines into a blind rage. Vacillating back and forth from clips of doctors bashing vaccines to parents sobbing while their kids scream is powerful in the worst way. These parents want answers, these doctors have one.
At least half the room stood to offer applause when the movie ended, many of them wiping away tears. Outside, a family of three was collecting their things. A smiley 7-year-old boy in a shirt that reads “untrust me” quietly shouts at me, unprompted, “I hate vaccines.” His parents, who have just stopped to talk with me about the viewing, agree.
“When he was being vaccinated, they didn’t even show us the bottles,” says his father Xavier LaBoy, who lives in Staten Island. “They just said ‘this is what the schedule says, this is what the CDC says.’” LaBoy and his wife chose to vaccinate their son, who looks—and, they tell me, is—perfectly healthy. But LaBoy says he’s “one of the few.”
As the family walks away, another woman thanks the film’s producer Del BigTree, who was in the audience. “I want to ask more questions about this but I’ll get too emotional,” the woman says. “But thank you, thank you for making this.”
Her thank you seems less about the film and more about the movement as a whole. There was nothing in it that hadn’t been written about before, just a place for all of it to live together. A security blanket of sorts for those needing something to believe or blame.
I left the film no less confident in the resounding evidence that vaccines do not cause autism, but profoundly saddened by how little we know about what does.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Robert De Niro had a daughter, instead of a son, with autism.