Sunday, January 19, 2014

A love/hate rant about the childhood obesity documentary FED UP

[Forgive the typos - I typed this up in 20 minutes between movies]

I just saw the world premiere of FED UP, the new documentary narrated and executive produced by Katie Couric.  I'm happy that it exists, sad that it needs to, and looking forward to a much more nuanced, complete and spirited conversation about it in the years to come. 

The doc takes aim at childhood obesity and howe we as a nation got to where we were in the first place as well as what steps we're taking now (versus the ones we need to) to reduce it and avoid the "public health tsunami" headed our way.  It offers emotional profiles of multiple families in their attempts to eat healthy, and intercuts it with experts - doctors, public health advocates, writers, etc.  

Here's what I liked about it:

  • It exposes the "calories in/calories out" myth that all calories are created equal, and it does so with some simple animation.   
  • It includes Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan and other popular advocates from what I guess I could call the "real food" movement
  • It rightfully de-emphasizes the vital importance exercise in the weight loss conversation (though they didn't mention much of the health benefits outside of weight loss

Here's what I didn't like about it:

  • Too much time spent on the problems and not enough spent on the solutions.  I would love it if they'd followed fewer obese children and spent more time following some of the many organizations that are working on affordable and sustainable real food solutions
  • I was surprised they didn't mention any conflicts of interest in US government - but I guess Food Inc did a pretty good job of covering that
  • It was almost too basic for me.  It felt like it was 30 minutes into the film before they finished making the "our kids are fat" case and started talking about how processed foods were the issue.  Really? You think? They took so long to get into that that I was almost starting to wonder if there was going to be some other out of left field solution they were proposing, the way they were building up the mystery there.
  • I hate, hate, hate images of fat people walking around with their heads cut off.  It is exploitative and fat shaming, and it undermines what the film is trying to do.  There's a talking head wisely quoted with "The deck is stacked against healthy eating." So the film understands that the issues are systemic and supported by our government. Why do we need images shown that reinforce the exploitative, fat-shaming approach so commonly adopted by less enlightened media reports?
  • There was some time spent on the fact that thin people can be as unhealthy as fat people, but this wasn't very kindly, respectfully or clearly outlined.  Someone basically said "You might be fat and you don't know it." A term called TOFI was introduced - thin on the outside, fat on the inside. 

That last bit reinforced for me that the film was a missed opportunity.  It starts an important conversation into the idea that focusing too much on willpower and exercise is distracting us from seeking the real cause of childhood obesity and stopping it. But it doesn't go far enough at making the distinction between the way you look and the way you feel.  By using cut-off heads,  it reinforces the idea that if someone looks fat, they are fat. And fat is, you know, the worst thing.

I see a lot of movies, but I don't write reviews. Even if I did, though, It's hard for me to objectively "review" a movie like this because it's a subject on which I feel a lot of passion.   So perhaps I'm being unfairly critical of a film whose intentions are without a doubt completely noble.  And I don't begrudge the filmmakers at all . The movie isn't for me, though - it's preaching (wisely) to a less informed public and probably (hopefully) one that sees fewer than 75 documentaries a year theatrically.   When I try to remove any bias and I try to think about the merits of the film, I am left with the fact that it is a simple, familiarly-structured advocacy documentary, and those are increasingly less my favorite genre.  

And when I go back to my personal feelings, I guess can't help but wait for someone to make the movie about those same kids where we sit them down and say "yeah, you're fat.  And it isn't your fault, and there are some things you can do to change it.  But in the meantime, don't listen to a society that despite doing little to help your generation change, continues to tell you that you're worthless unless you do.  Be proud of the exercise you do because it makes you feel good, even if it hasn't caused you to lose any weight yet.  Don't get so bogged down by the focus on the way that you look that you can't find the motivation to continue seeking real, healthy alternatives to processed foods because you don't even feel like you're worth the effort because you are."

</end rant>

I still hope this film gets the widespread support it deserves as unfortunately it sounds like people still need to learn these basics, and I am looking forward to more documentaries this week that are likely more nuanced and artistic in approach.  

1 comment:

  1. Well, I'm FED UP..... with not getting this sort of insightful commentary on a regular basis.