Bioethics Blogs

Do Documentaries Have to Tell the Truth?

When the Tribeca Film Festival canceled its controversial screening of Vaxxed, a “documentary” (with scare-quotes) alleging a Centers for Disease Control cover-up of the debunked vaccine-autism link, it vindicated what scientists have collectively been saying for years: There’s nothing to talk about hereVaccines don’t cause autism, and there’s no CDC cover-up, full stop.

But the decision to accept, and then kill, the documentary raises important questions that shouldn’t be put to rest just because the film has been. The episode invites us to consider how directors can and should choose to represent a point of view, and challenges us to reevaluate preconceptions (and misconceptions) about what the word “documentary” means as a form of nonfiction storytelling.

To explore the complex issues surrounding documentary ethics, I interviewed seasoned filmmakers and producers, in addition to scholars conversant in vaccine science and politics, about what happened with Vaxxed—and what can and should be learned from the whole messy affair.  

This story has presumably captured public attention not only because it involved a famous film festival flip-flopping, but because it speaks to ethical dilemmas that aren’t so easy to unpack.

The Power of Point of View

The man behind Vaxxed is, not surprisingly, the source of much of the controversy surrounding itWhen a network of first responders mobilized against Tribeca’s programming decision, it was out of concern that Vaxxed left unacknowledged the polarizing and deceptive biases of its director, Andrew Wakefield. His is not a common household name, but, for vaccine advocates and bioethicists, it’s an unsavory one.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.