Thursday, 17 November 2016

Movie Review: Vaxxed: From Cover-Up To Catastrophe (2016)



Despite every reason why I shouldn’t, I have been anxiously awaiting the day that I can finally discuss this film in my usual rambling fashion. Over the last several months, I’ve been looking at release dates and interest groups involving this film and anti-vaxxing in general, just waiting for when the film would be released here in Australia. I mean, if God’s Not Dead 2 not only get a cinematic release but a distressingly wide release at that, surely something like this warrants similar treatment. Alas, due to the phenomenally terrible press it’s gotten, it seems that there are some things that even we won’t screen… well, for an extended amount of time. After some digging, I found that the film has been screened all of once as part of the Castlemaine CLIFF film festival. Since I’ve reviewed films here before with only one local screening to their name, and any release no matter how small meets my ad-hoc requirements for a review, it has now fallen under my purview. This may be the only time that I seek out a film purely for discussion purposes, as the whole anti-vaxxer movement has become quite toxic of late, so hopefully this will clear the air a bit. This is Vaxxed: From Cover-Up To Catastrophe.


The plot (such as it is): After being asked for help in a matter involving reactions to the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine, formerly credited gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield discovered a scientific study that links the MMR vaccine with cases of autism. Through testimonials from parents of those supposedly affected, he tries to show that Big Pharma is behind a big conspiracy and… ugh… I can’t writing this crap; I feel like I’m invoking a hex on myself.

Within moments of the film playing, something becomes very apparent. Andrew Wakefield is many things: A frequently discredited doctor, a con artist, someone with a vested interest in taking down the current MMR vaccine just so that he can push his own patented product. One thing he isn’t is a filmmaker. Now, as easy as it could be argued, this film’s place as a piece of propaganda doesn’t automatically mean that it’s bad. After all, the first ever film school was started as a means of further Communist doctrine and they ended up crafting a large number of techniques that filmmakers the world over use to this day. That said, this is really poorly-structured propaganda, with editing tricks and system fonts that I could legit recreate on my rickety Macbook that I used to make my old Youtube videos. I’ve always said that documentaries are at their best when they look the cheapest, but there’s a definite limit to that line of thinking and this is it. Probably doesn’t help that he frequently just inserts anti-MMR PSAs into the film, acted out by painfully casual child actors no less, and the camera work is unnecessarily shaky in almost every scene just makes it look worse.

But just because it’s propaganda doesn’t mean that I am going to discredit it; after all, there’s plenty of left-wing message films that get the pass despite being of a similar ilk. No, the fact that it keeps making a point of dancing around the science of the matter is why I’m discrediting it. It’s quite shameless in how it will largely shy away from getting into hard numbers in terms of the evidence that proves the main hypothesis of the film. Instead, in true prop fashion, it spends a lot more time aiming for the heart rather than the mind by showing the supposed “victims” of the vaccine. Now, I emphasize “victims” not because I doubt that these people have been affected by autism, but because as the film portrays it, I left it not all that convinced that the vaccine was the cause of it. We spend a lot of time with these families, with the parents detailing their version of events in terms of when the signs of autism first turned up, and it is admittedly quite affecting seeing how their children’s condition has made life for them and their parents. Ordinarily, this would be perfectly fine and quite touching, except they are framed within a whole lot of woo woo that the film isn’t even capable of conveying properly. Context killed the feels, essentially.

A big contributor to why this isn’t conveyed well is because, more so than testimonial footage, the film spends an inordinate amount of time playing TV footage of people openly questioning anti-vaxxers. Now, personally, I understand that there are actual cases of vaccine damage that would naturally make certain people hesitant to go near them. But, since this film is expressly about the correlation between autism and MMR, that doesn’t come into play here. This film just likes to spend far more time with its detractors than its supporters. The clips used aren’t even framed with any kind of mocking eye or anything; if I had to guess, Wakefield wanted to pad out the film’s running time with anything at least tangentially connected to the issue. What’s more, when they take time away from the doubters to get into the evidence supporting the film’s main point, it’s rather flimsy. Like, easily corrected by Cracked articles kind of flimsy. Seriously, an article written for a mainly comedic website contains more documented evidence than this documentary; that’s a bad sign right there. It probably doesn’t help that linking to specific examples of debunking isn’t necessary, because a few minutes on Google will manage to provide you with more than enough evidence to sway you one way or another. A view that I disagree with is annoying enough to watch, but it’s made objectively worse when the film does a horrible job of representing that view.

Now to get into the real issue I have with this film, the point where this film goes from being just bad to mind-numbingly atrocious: The treatment of those with autism. To put it simply, this film is shockingly exploitative of those with lower-functioning autism, making a point to only show them at their worst in order to drive the point home as if these people spend every waking moment in the middle of a meltdown. This is not helped by how the film portrays these people, using terms like “damaged” and “maimed” to describe their conditions. Hate to break it to the, let’s be honest here, morons who think like this, but these examples? Cherry-picked to fit the Wakefield agenda. Autism is not something that should be treated as a disease that can be cured or a virus that destroys people. Yes, some people are affected by it worse than others, but this film’s depiction of autism as being the lowest point and nothing else is horrifically dishonest. Ever since I got diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, I have been in and out of support groups for most of my schooling life, meeting plenty of people in varying places within the spectrum. And you know what? More often than not, those people were often some of the smartest and kindest people I’ve had the fortune to meet, not to mention being better functioning than most adults we were dealing with at the time. I can safely say that we collectively have nothing but four-letter words for this mindset that, unfortunately, is shared by an alarming number of anti-vaxxers, some of whom even claim to be autism advocates. It’s quite sickening, to put it mildly.

All in all, I owe Lights Out something of an apology. While I still find that ending to be hideously misguided, the bulk of the film showed a better understanding of the condition it highlighted that quite a few other films involving similar topics. This film may have certain ideals that I don’t prescribe to, but I’m not going to be immediately judgemental about that. Like I said, I have a reasonable amount of sympathy for certain anti-vaxxers and I understand that they may have perfectly legitimate reasons for their actions. That said, this film is shoddily put together, selective to the point of being flat-out dishonest and its portrayal of people with autism is at once exploitative and offensive. And bear in mind, even without having the condition, I’d still be railing against this film’s depiction of those with autism as fundamentally damaged and easy pickings to manipulate and proselytize others. Undoubtedly, this is worse than Lights Out and that fact gives me a bit of clarity. Back when I reviewed that film, I made a statement to the tune of “This is the new worst film I’ve ever seen”. Well, this is decidedly worse and yet I don’t see this as the worst film I’ve ever seen; probably because this barely qualifies as a film at all. I never side with censorship, but I can easily see why this hasn’t gotten a wide release here yet. And quite frankly, I hope it never does.

Addendum: It has come to my attention that, in one of the few instances of me actually doing research, I have made a fatal error. The CLIFF screening? Got pulled, just like the one for Tribeca. This effectively makes this film unfit for review, but quite honestly, the responses I've already gotten for this review have ensured that this review is staying right here.

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