Mike Welsh

Hearts of ignorance: My evening with the anti-vaxx movement

With press accreditations dangling off my neck, I found myself in the wriggling nervous masses of the Anti-Vaxx movement as they were out in force for the debut screening of their ‘subversive’  documentary at Canberra’s ANU.

 

 

It was a black, dirty and sodden Monday July evening in Canberra, and I was hopelessly lost on the grounds of the Australian National University. The mood was foreboding. It was the night before the prestigious institution had to digest a bitter bullet and share (along with many other tertiary bodies around the country) shocking statistics published from a ground breaking study into sexual assault and harassment on university campuses.

As I pulled into a random car park to get my bearings I copped a horn blast from a ute driving dickhead (for all I knew he could have been an adjunct Professor of Anthropology doing some overtime). Clearly, Professor Dickhead knew his way around the vast campus which qualifies for its own postcode. But there was absolutely no point in asking him for directions, or anyone else for that matter, because I didn’t know where I was going. I hadn’t yet been told.

Ten days prior I’d witnessed an irate young woman rip an advertising flyer from a post at a local market. Impulsively, I picked up the pieces and instantly understood her motivation. The lacerated poster promoted the screening of Vaxxing: From Cover up to Catastrophe a 90 minute documentary on the dangers of child MMR vaccinations.

I made contact with the media person for the Australian Vaccination Sceptics Network (AVN), who were hosting the producers of the doco, identifying myself as a journalist writing for several publications. I was duly accredited to attend the “secret” screening scheduled for Monday, July 31.

I was no more than vaguely aware of the anti-vax issue, but I was already completely indoctrinated to reject everything it stood for. I was keen to venture further under the assumption I was sufficiently vaccinated against any brainwashing. I would not drink the kool-aid. I hoped to record some “action” outside the venue but it seems Canberrans are more civilised than the rest of the country.

To thwart objectors who’ve dogged the Australian doco’s tour, I was told I’d be advised of a venue three hours prior to a 6.30pm start. Half three came and went, so I emailed and was told to go to a specified ANU car park and wait until 6.10 when I would be advised of my next and hopefully final step.

 

I was keen to venture further under the assumption I was sufficiently vaccinated against any brainwashing. I would not drink the kool-aid.

 

As the rain began to fall more heavily I sprinted across the half full car park towards a group of people huddled at the front of the recently renovated John Curtin School of Medical Research. Using the school’s light they were peering into their phones mumbling something about “it must be this way”. Bingo. I had serendipitously driven into the right car park and now had happened upon the right group heading in the right, depending on your viewpoint, direction. We arrive and run a gauntlet of happy welcoming people similar to the entrance of some Christian churches.

The tone of the event was extremist both in the film and during the Q and A afterwards.

About 170 people – comprising mostly young couples and a few refugees from anti-Vietnam war and anti-fluoride movements – filled the lecture theatre. This latter mob apparently doesn’t get old, it just moves from movement to movement as long as the movement allows them to be anti-something. Think early One Nation supporters but with a university experience.

Several people with rock band roadie type tour jackets with “VAXXED” sprayed across the back, scurry around the front of the room and then without any introduction Vaxxed; From Cover up to Catastrophe fires up on the small screen.

A film where the director/writer (a discredited doctor) and the producer (a scientist with an autistic child) dominate is always going to struggle for credibility. Film critic Joe Leydon wrote in Variety in 2016: “…in the end, however, Vaxxed comes across as a grab-bag of charts and theories and anecdotal evidence that would never pass muster by the editors of any major scientific journal (like, say the Lancet), and too often resembles the kind of one-sided, paranoia-stoking ‘agitpop’ that political activists construct to sanctify true believers and assault infidels”.

During the screening, the aforementioned roadies crawled up and down the aisles, like giggling children, armed with selfie sticks gathering for what we learnt later was a live streaming of the event on social media.

 

The following day the ANU, still dealing with the toxic fall-out from the University sexual assault/harassment survey – was forced to hose down a claim that by renting the lecture theatre to the AVN, it was endorsing the highly questionable and contested “scientific” claims made and debunked by the anti-vaxxers.

 

The following day the ANU, still dealing with the toxic fall-out from the University sexual assault/harassment survey – was forced to hose down a claim that by renting the lecture theatre to the AVN, it was endorsing the highly questionable and contested “scientific” claims made and debunked by the anti-vaxxers.

The group which had not exactly enjoyed four star “down under hospitality” in securing venues on its Australian tour, posted on Facebook that it had in fact “infiltrated” the ANU, gloating “can’t think of a better place to air a scientific controversy than an institution of higher learning such as the ANU”.

Rather than being disheartened by the hostile reception Vaxxed copped, with two more cinematic projects in the pipeline, the Australia tour is just the “shot in the arm” these people need to continue their crusade.

As a doco, Vaxxed is pinch and punch. It’s a good doco, as far as docos go, and packs a punch but must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Think a Michael Moore documentary without Michael Moore, but blatantly apeing his flag wavin’, cotton-pickin’, cherry-picking method of making a point.

My visit to the ANU was indeed educational. I now know my way around the campus a bit better.

Mike Welsh

Mike Welsh is a multi award winning Commercial Radio talk-back radio host,documentary maker,magazine columnist and blogger and is based in Canberra. Mike is the Editor of TBS Boomers, our hand selected section for Aussie Baby Boomers.

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