by Tony Dayoub
On a weekend crowded with new releases there are two food-related documentaries currently making the rounds worth noting. One is essential viewing; the other, not so much.
Let's talk about that one first. Farmland is a lushly shot, expertly edited documentary celebrating the hard work of the contemporary American farmer in his or her myriad forms. What it isn't is a balanced investigation into the role of the farmer in today's politically and economically corrupt society. Director James Moll glosses over some of the more troubling facts about the current state of farming—GMOs, the dubious role that government subsidies play, etc.—in order to lionize farmers.
Farmland is not dissimilar to the kind of "documentary" one used to see before riding some Disney attraction that would extol all of the benefits of our agriculture industry before you realized that it was sponsored by a troubling multinational agri-business conglomerate like Monsanto. Yes, the farmers interviewed are sympathetic and earn our respect. But significant drawbacks about how the farming industry operates today are elided over both visually and textually as if they were merely nettlesome subjects brought to our attention by nitpickers. The kicker here is that Farmland is, of course, a production bank-rolled by the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. Not necessarily a film to be dismissed without some consideration, but caveat emptor and all that.
Truly revelatory and compelling is Fed Up, a documentary brought to us by Laurie David (An Inconvenient Truth) and Katie Couric. Using the obesity of America's children as a frightening starting point, Fed Up delves into the role our government has played in facilitating unhealthy eating and allowing food companies to flout even the most basic health recommendations and advisories made by scientists. It dispels the commonly held notion that simply exercising can counteract the effect that the overabundance of sugar in processed foods can have on our bodies. The most obvious piece of evidence is a chart the film produces showing how the "Exercise Revolution," the rise in Americans actively seeking to get fit, mirrors the rise in national obesity rates. Using colorfully memorable infographics, director Stephanie Soechtig offers viewers a primer on the way our bodies process sugar, the pleasurable addictive effect it has on our brains, and how difficult it is to counteract its effect once these addictive qualities take hold.
Sad as it is to hear Fed Up's many profiles of young men and women who struggle to overcome their obesity issues in a society where the odds are stacked considerably against them, it is sadder still to contemplate that our government has played the role of enabler. Bill Clinton, now a vegan after many years of struggling with his own weight, gamely allows himself to be interviewed on camera (Let's Move campaign founder Michelle Obama, the film states, did not) where he gets a chance to offer a mea culpa about his own administration's inability to confront the issue and discusses how his Clinton Foundation is trying to respond to the obesity crisis here and around the world. Fed Up shows how dire the consequences are of ignoring the next generation's weight battles and is a must-see.