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Robert De Niro pulls controversial documentary from Tribeca Film Festival

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(CNN) – Film legend Robert De Niro is pulling an anti-vaccine documentary from the Tribeca Film Festival amid controversy over plans to screen the movie next month.

“The Festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy,” De Niro said in a statement posted Saturday on the festival’s Facebook page. “However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program. We have decided to remove it from our schedule.”

“VAXXED: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” purports to examine “the long-debated link between autism and vaccines … to understand what’s behind the skyrocketing increase of autism diagnoses today.”

The Oscar-winning star of “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas” is a co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, one of the country’s largest showcases of independent cinema. News that the festival planned to include “VAXXED” sparked complaints from physicians and filmmakers who said it was not worthy of the festival’s platform and that its entry in the documentary category not only threatened the credibility of other filmmakers but also perpetuated what is widely considered a hoax in the medical community.

That the film was made by the person blamed by some and credited by others for the anti-vaccine movement makes it propaganda, not documentary film, critics say.

Director Andrew Wakefield was stripped of his medical license in 2010 for linking autism to childhood vaccines in a now-discredited study published in 1998. Studies since then have found no such link, and an investigation by the British medical journal BMJ in 2011 found Wakefield’s study was an “elaborate fraud” that falsified data in a “deliberate attempt” to create an impression of a link.

Award-winning documentary director Penny Lane wrote an open letter before Tribeca removed the film, saying the festival “made a very serious mistake” in deciding to screen it.

“While it is true that we documentary filmmakers constantly debate vexing questions about the perceived and real differences between our work and the work of traditional journalism, I assure you that we are not debating whether it is okay to knowingly spread dangerous lies,” Lane wrote in the letter in Filmmaker Magazine.

“Issues around truth and ethics in documentary can get thorny. But this one is easy. This film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.”

In a statement Friday on the festival’s Facebook page, De Niro, who has a child with autism, defended including “VAXXED” in the Tribeca schedule and said he hoped the film would spark dialogue about “the causes of autism.”

“Grace 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. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED.

“I am not personally endorsing the film, nor am I anti-vaccination; I am only providing the opportunity for a conversation around the issue.”

But his followup statement posted Saturday took a different tone.

“My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for,” De Niro said.