Reviews Of Fed Up!; Food Matters; Food, Inc.; The Future Of Food; Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead; And Killer At Large: Why Obesity Is America’s Greatest Threat
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/23/12
I recently watched six documentaries on Netflix detailing the nature and causes of the poor eating habits of the American public: Fed Up!; Food Matters; Food, Inc.; The Future Of Food; Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead; and Killer At Large: Why Obesity Is America’s Greatest Threat.
Fed Up! Is a 2002 documentary that clocks in at just under an hour, and is a mainly fact-based documentary that examines how American agriculture went from, in the early 20th Century, a localized industry designed to serve the needs of small pockets of people around the nation, to an oligopoly of international corporations who have destroyed family farming, profitability for many entities along the ‘food chain,’ poisoned the environment, and made the worst foods possible the cheapest, due to blackmailing the federal government into subsidizing bad, fast foods and genetically modified foods, while making it next to impossible for organic and local foods to thrive.
Directed by Angelo Sacerdote, this film has the feel of a PBS or cable documentary, but is a serviceable introduction to the whole topic of modern agriculture, not only in the Unites States, but globally. A dozen or more talking heads pop up throughout the film, and these folks must be ‘stars’ of the forces opposed to the corporatization and commoditization of food because, in almost all the other films I will be discussing in this review, these same folks tend to turn up, saying almost all the same things they say here. Of course, not all the films have all the same experts, but it’s interesting to note how many of these films feature the same messages and techniques.
One of the memes that gets going in this film, that all the others pick up on, is the rightful demonization of the Monsanto corporation (along with others, such as Cargill and ConAgra), after the bad Supreme Court decision to allow the patenting of genomes for crops. The consequence has been that small farmers, whose fields are polluted with genetically modified and genetically engineered products, often have to pay ‘fines’ to Monsanto for the company’s pollution of their crop rather than receive reparations and damages for this act of genetic and natural sabotage; a legal oddity that reverses the liability role so long established in English common law.
While the film is a good watch, in terms of substance, artistically, the film has a bit of a slipshod approach to editing, and the use to older, black and white public domain footage. However, it does a good job of tracing the post-World War Two trends of Big Business and the fallacy that the Green Revolution of the 1960s was meant for and designed to end world hunger. No, in reality, it was meant to cheapen production, at all costs- the health and safety of the public, as well as the wages and benefits of the workers in the industry, whose once high paying jobs have given way to dangerous conditions and illegal immigrant workers who are de facto modern slaves. The film also touches on mono-crop fields, and the problems of working against, and not with, Mother Nature. Overall, it is a film as primer into the subject, and that I watched it first was just fortuity.
Food Matters, a film from 2008, that runs and hour and seventeen minute sin length, deals with many of the same points that Fed Up! does, but, with more time, and a more focused editing and editorial approach, it succeeeds better, as a film and a polemic against the corporate interests. As a long time worker in the grocery industry, I have long been skeptical of the actual health benefits of organic vs. other foods, but these documentaries, and, especially starting with Food Matters, do a good job of highlighting an even greater problem of the corporatization of food- and that is the economically negative impact that such practices have across a broad swath of American and international society.
Co-directed by James Colquhoun and Laurentine Ten Bosch, this film documents the corruption of the very nature of food pricing, with the federal government’s mindless subsidy of big agribusiness, and especially corn production, and how this perverts international markets, such as making corn cheaper to Mexican farmers than that they can grow; the irony being that Mexico is the birthplace and cradle of corn to the world. A bevy of the same talking heads from the other films make some of the same points as they do elsewhere, but this film stitches together a solid narrative and trail of evidence for even the most apathetic viewer to easily follow. There are some claims made, by some of the wackier denizens of this documentary, and the others, such as simply eating this or that being a cure for cancer, or curing clinical depression simply by subscribing a high niacin diet, but none of this has ever been tested in controlled studies.
That stated, the film is correct in calling out the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and the EPA for their failures to regulate the production and marketing of the assorted advertising gimmicks used to foist bad foods upon the public, as well as labeling the whole system the ‘sickness industry,’ rather than the wellness or food industry, as well as showing how perverse it is for the drug companies (which often own the agriculture companies) to control the medical journals and university grants that research and detail the harm caused by their own policies.
Technically, Food Matters is a cut or two above Fed Up! on the cinematic scale, and also penetrates a bit more deeply into the issues that first film raises. The lone negative of the film is one that plagues some of the other films in this review, and that is the use of some rather cheesy animation.
The same year that saw the release of Food Matters saw the release of a documentary that, in many ways, is sort of a slightly more polemical doppelganger, and that film is Robert Kenner’s 93 minute long Food, Inc., which was based upon the best selling muckraking book, Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, as well as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While Schlosser is the dominant figure in the film, he is not the narrator, nor is he the lone commentator. Pollan also appears in the film, along with many of the same retread talking heads from the others films under review in this essay. However, this film garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary because of its more polemical style, as well as the higher production values than either of the first two films had at their disposal.
Yet, despite these advantages, this film seems to lack the bite and passion and science centeredness of the first two films; and I state that not because it contains some of the same information as the other films, as that is inevitable, but, regardless of the order I would have watched these films, this film would have come off the most scientifically shallow, even as it is the most cinematically accomplished. It simply offers no new food for thought (pardon the pun) on the matters at hand.
The polemical nature of the film sometimes works to the disadvantage of
its aims, cinematically and, also dialectically, as there is a whole digression
on the finding of E. coli in certain foods which is simply not an issue that has
to do with the production of food organically or not, but on the subsequent
handling of it, for such can easily occur in organic products, as well as
genetically engineered or factory farmed. That the film makes hay of this point,
and uses the death of a child to make it, is a bit disingenuous, but the film
also deals with the lax regulations that make such outbreaks inevitable, and the
outfall from the death, which includes industry attempts to defeat the law, year
after year, and disallow government inspections of processing plants (ah, the
joys of deregulation!). Contrapuntally, the film also shows a farmer who raises
his chickens in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and slaughters them humanely,
and in the open air, only to get slapped by federal authorities with claims that
his chickens are unsanitary, whereas processed chickens are dipped in chemical
baths- a classic case of the insanity that often accompanies the mix of
government and big business into any area, even as the government’s inspection
of such businesses has decreased by over 80% in the last four decades. The film
also details Monsanto’s CIA-like attempts to intimidate and extort small
farmers into a feudal serfdom via their legal department’s patent infringement
harassment, as well as ‘food libel laws,’ and the gaming of the system by
paying off legislators in many countries to write laws favorable to them.
That stated, Food, Inc. is a classic mixed bag- too long on Left Wing nostra when it should have concentrated on what it did best- feature raw information which is undeniable.
The Future Of Food, an 88 minute long documentary, released in 2004, and directed by Deborah Koons Garcia, wife of the late founder of the 1960s rock band, The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, is a film that rehashes many of the same points made in the earlier films, yet also goes a bit more deeply, penetrating into the web of how Monsanto, and other agribusiness giants weave a web of control and oligopoly that reverberates up and down the food chain, and puts the squeeze on the small, family farmer, even waging a war on them. The film shows how a Canadian farmer named Percy Schmeiser stood up to Monsanto and was ruined by a corrupt Canadian judiciary (although, if one follows the link provided, it seems that Schmeiser actually got the upper hand in 2008!).
The film also details how these corporate thugs, mostly in the petrochemical and insecticide and herbicide industries, have cornered the market in the seed industry, and how ridiculous patent laws have allowed the first company with the idea to patent natural plants to do so, and how they have tried to standardize patent laws worldwide so that an American or French company could somehow dictate the agricultural and food policies of developing and Third World nations, in a sort of corporate colonialism that is bound to engender not only health, but political, problems in the future. The destruction of native cultures is just part of the problem, for the larger issue is the absurdity of patenting life itself, and stating that Crop X belongs to a foreign company, thus allowing foreign interests to lay economic and legal rights to products they had no part in cultivating, while also allowing these unevolved and monoculture crops great range and susceptibility to droughts and pests they cannot fight off, for even Monsanto’s Round Up Ready soy beans are showing their limitations as a food source, whereas Mexico’s natal and diverse forms of corn, which occasionally remix with wild and progenitor breeds prove hardier and more resistant than the genetically modified corn from north of the border.
The film also brings to light what is called the Terminator Gene that has been developed in certain crops, which was designed so that limits on crops could more easily maintain crop process. The utter folly of this, were these strains to become dominant, is that famine would be rampant, and the very development of such a gene, alone, should be enough to convince any legislative body of the folly of allowing corporate empty suits to have any say in the vital national security issue of feeding the masses. All in all, The Future Of Food is likely the best and most information rich of these documentaries in conveying the scope and depth of the issues surrounding America’s insane agricultural process.
The fifth film under review is a change in pace from the other four films, and focuses not on the business and ecological concerns regarding the macro-processes of food production, rather how what a person eats affects their own internal health and life choices. The film in question is Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, a film written, produced, and directed by a financially successful Australian businessman named Joe Cross. The film was released in 2010, and runs 97 minutes in length.
On the surface, the film almost seems like an infomercial, as for its first half it follows Cross on a trek to America, to go on a 60 day juice fast. That is, the fortysomething Cross, who weighed in at over 300 pounds, at the start of the documentary, decides to end his years of dependency on steroids and medicines, to treat an autoimmune deficiency, as well as his high-flying lifestyle, so that he can get and stay healthy. He sees a doctor, gets an ok to begin his change in diet, then spends the first month in New York City, before heading out on a cross-country trek to spread his gospel of juicing fruits and vegetables for their easily digested vitamin and nutrient content. The film then follows the lives of a few people Cross encounters, gets the typical man in the street condescension, as well as a few converts, until, at about midpoint, Cross encounters a truck driver, in Arizona, named Phil Staples, who dwarfs Cross’s weight, and checks in at over 400 pounds.
When Cross’s fast ends, and he is almost a hundred pounds lighter, he heads back down under until, a few months later, he gets a call from Staples, desperate to change his life, who asks Joe for the help he offered when they met. The second half of the film thus becomes Staples’ even longer journey to health, and the film follows him for almost a year, as he loses weight, gains local celebrity, and nurses his older brother, Barry (also obese), into a healthy lifestyle after he suffers a heart attack.
The film gets its message across well, and never comes off as preachy. Cross seems genuine in his mission, and even has his own website dedicated to the cause. The lone negative in the film is the really bad animation that is repeatedly used, for any other critiques of the film would center on what it is obviously not, instead of what it is: a well made biography of two men and their struggles with eating and health.
The final film under review is another film released in 2008 (must have been a vintage year for this subgenre of food documentaries)- likely due to the politics involved in the presidential election that year, whose two negatives are (yet again) some cheesy animated segments, as well as needlessly demonizing President George W. Bush’s and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s post-9/11 demonizing as being a cause of the obesity that plagues young children when most kids were utterly oblivious to such, and lost in their burgeoning online lives. Directed by Steven Greenstreet, the 104 minute long Killer At Large: Why Obesity Is America’s Greatest Threat sort of splits the difference between the first four documentaries detailed in this essay and Joe Cross’s Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, even as it employs some of the same talking heads the earlier films did (being a talking head clearly pays off, if not well).
While this film follows the lives of people who are too fat, and not the agribusiness end, it does follow how policies, in school lunch programs, and the kid-based advertising of major companies, have abused the health of children all over this nation, as well as some others. While many of the talking heads from the other documentaries are seen repeating their same talking points, there are talking heads and vintage clips of celebrities that lend this film the most relatability of all the documentaries under review. There are appearances by former President Bill Clinton, Ralph Nader, Mike Huckabee, Neil Labute, Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Chevy Chase. The appearance of Carmona is especially instructive as footage of him detailing how the George W. Bush administration constantly thwarted his attempts to highlight positive and healthy living choices were put well behind business concerns, even as the Bush administration gave public face to promoting healthy eating.
The film opens with the media firestorm over the fact that a twelve year old girl named Brooke Bates, who weighed over 200 pounds, was allowed by her parents to have liposuction. After the surgery, she is shown vamping it up- extolling her newfound popularity, but then the film shows that less than a year after her surgery she has gained the weight back. The interesting thing is that the film shows that the fault is it is part nurture (Brooke eats obsessively to combat psycho-emotional problems) and part nature (her parents are not obese and the fat goes to parts of her body unaffected by the surgery). A quick Google search shows that, in the years since the film was made, Bates has become obsessed with plastic surgery and looking like a Barbie doll, but that’s the subject for another documentary and review.
This film is the third in this review that uses a graphic showing the rotating door of government officials who leave government for agribusiness jobs, or vice versa, which makes one wonder whether or not the filmmakers should have used other graphics, or if the obvious problem this practice represents is simply being ignored by the corporate mainstream media, for this film does a good job of connecting agricultural policies to global warming and detailing how the government wastes money- first by subsidizing the agricultural interests with billions of dollars that produce cheap, unhealthy food that is cheap only because of the subsidies received, while denying such to the organic food industry, while turning around and spending a few million dollars in faux health campaigns that are mere photo opportunities for politicians and agribusiness CEOs to pretend they give a damn about anything other than lining their wallets. The most ridiculous notion shown is that the USDA requires caloric minimums, not maximums, for school lunches, thus making junk food- not healthy foods, eligible for federal reimbursements to school districts. This, and some lesser absurdities, make Killer At Large: Why Obesity Is America’s Greatest Threat well worth watching.
The films under review all serve their purposes, and are uniformly solid documentaries, but taken as a whole, are a damning indictment not only of the personal irresponsibility that most Americans bear in their poor national health, but especially at the evils of corporations who put profit over public responsibility, as well as the ancillary role played by a federal government that is, at worst, complicit in this evil, and at best, utterly irresponsible. The most enjoyable of the films is Joe Cross’s Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, but, in terms of production values and information, the two best films to watch are Killer At Large: Why Obesity Is America’s Greatest Threat and The Future Of Food. Regardless, go see any or all of them, for even the worst of the lot will educate you on these vital issues.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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