High School Students Under Attack For Vaccine Documentary

May 12 2014, 1:15pm CDT | by

A high-school film club in Carlsbad, Calif., has made films centered on emotional, wrenching subjects before, including the Holocaust and food insecurity in the US. But nothing, not even reaction from white supremacists to their Holocaust film, prepared them for what would happen when they made a film about vaccines.

Their documentary, “Invisible Threat,” addresses the subject of vaccine refusal and the repercussions that can follow. According to the student filmmakers, the genesis of the documentary was their initial decision to make a short peer-to-peer film about how the immune system works. While looking into the subject, they became aware of the controversies around vaccines and turned their attention to the effects vaccine refusal can have on public health. The film, begun a few years ago, is now complete, and a trailer is available here. I have not seen the complete film.

According to the information disseminated with the trailer, students created the documentary along with their broadcast journalism teacher and with local education advocate Lisa Posard. Posard is a documentary producer, former president of the board of the local education foundation, and the PTA president. She produced the students’ previous documentaries on the Holocaust and food insecurity, as well, and her daughter, who now attends UCLA, was one of the students who worked on these films.

So what we have here is high school students making what has been a remarkably well-reviewed documentary film for film class, with their film teacher and a producer/parent/PTA president who has previously supported them in making equally compelling, professional work. You’d think that such efforts deserve some positive attention and praise, given that their films have received widespread attention and good reviews from those on the front lines of public health.

Yet that hasn’t stopped groups who voice vaccine opposition from waging what amounts to a ground campaign against these students. These groups, primarily associated by their insistence on a vaccine-autism link, have issued a news release in which they struggle to imply that the adults–teacher, parent and PTA president–had nefarious intentions in guiding their students in the filmmaking. They allege in the release that the students’ teacher has “joined forces with a vaccine industry front group” and … well, it’s a little difficult to tell where one goes wrong promoting one’s film through public health groups when one is making a film related to public health.

And they’ve put out a call to followers to contact their congresspersons with this missive, alerting said elected officials to the sheer horror of the existence of a film about vaccines and public health made by high school students. It’s enough to make one feel sympathy for our elected officials–or their interns, at any rate.

Among other accusations that activists have made against these students is the following from the news release:

Barry Segal, philanthropist and founder of Focus Autism, said, “All of the deceptions involved in the making of this film are a good reminder of how the vaccine industry operates.” The film’s “national premier” in January was hosted by The Immunization Project, whose activities include pro-vaccination lobbying efforts. The film is sponsored by a local Rotary grant; Rotary International receives large grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major investor in vaccines. The film is being promoted for student viewing and is approved by Common Core.

It pushes all the buttons, does it not? Bill Gates, much detested in anti-vaccine circles for his insistence that we eradicate polio; “vaccine industry”; Common Core–which somehow can “approve” things; and … the Rotary Club? You know those Rotary people. Always up to their elbows in money-making conspiracies.

The effort to intimidate these students began even before they’d conceived the idea for this film–indeed, it began simply because they’d decided to make their peer-to-peer film about immunity. As Camille Posard, student filmmaker and Lisa Posard’s daughter, wrote:

Almost three years ago an article in our tiny local newspaper mentioned our broadcast journalism club, Carlsbad High School TV (CHSTV) Films, was going to make a video clip about the immune system including how vaccines work. We hadn’t even started filming, yet the blogs prompted hundreds of ugly comments and calls. Yes, the anti-vaccine bloggers were harshly criticizing high school students doing an after school project sponsored by an unrestricted local Rotary grant.

Not knowing anything about vaccines, I thought there must be something shocking we were about to uncover about children being harmed and possible cover up. Now that was worth researching. However, the adult supervisors at CHSTV Films -  the director (our broadcasting teacher) and the volunteer (PTA mom turned producer) - had a different reaction. They pulled the plug on the project, citing a concern for us teens after all the angry comments flooded in. They had no idea that this topic was so explosive. Due to the success of our previous films, we had other projects being pitched to us and the adults felt it best to avoid this headache.

In the end, they didn’t back down, in part at the students’ urging. But according to Michael Kruse, writing at the Canadian Huffington Post, the vitriol was scary, even compared to pushback from white supremacists:

… once the anti-vaccine community got wind of the production through a small news article in a local paper, the threats and emails started and almost stalled their production. At a media call for the film, she (Lisa Posard) confirmed that after the resistance they received from white-supremacists over their holocaust documentary, they considered abandoning the vaccine documentary all together.

I understand the adult reaction of caution because threats can be rattling and the first response to any rattling is to try to stabilize. But I’m glad that the students didn’t back down and decided to stand their ground, which is the ethical and courageous reaction to threats intended to silence and intimidate.

It is unfortunate that high-school students exploring a subject and applying real-world skills to produce critically acclaimed work on that subject would become targets in this way, whether by white supremacists or those who oppose vaccines. But just as making their film was a “real-world” experience for them, standing their ground against intimidation and alleged threats is about as real-world as it gets. Too bad they had to be the target of it before they’d officially entered adulthood, just the kind of payback no high school student deserves for engaging in fruitful, useful extracurricular projects.


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