"Killer at Large," a new documentary DVD, is a veritable banquet of obesity information, serving up copious facts and personal tales about the American obesity epidemic that threatens to shorten the life span of the current generation of young people. Alas, the movie provides only a dollop of solutions rather than the feast we need.
If you didn't know obesity is a problem, "Killer" will bring you up to speed, and fast. Unlike "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's call to arms about global warming, this documentary doesn't waste a moment. It stuffs viewers full of information about the causes of obesity (genetics, marketing, stress, emotional eating, addictive behaviors, contradictory government agricultural and health policies), the effects of obesity (diabetes in particular) and the failure of lawmakers and policymakers to act, despite decades of warnings from health officials including surgeons general, thanks to politics and money. It focuses especially on the George W. Bush administration's failures, but the failure of Congress and his predecessors deserve more criticism than they get.
The banquet servers in "Killer" are a pantheon of contemporary good-food luminaries (authors Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Ann Cooper); government critics (Ralph Nader); relatively enlightened politicians, at least on obesity (Sen. Tom Harkin, Sen. Sam Brownback, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger); clergy; sundry experts on obesity; and, not least, a few fat and formerly fat people. Movie makers Steven Greenstreet, Bryan Young, and Elias Pate also give a peek at an organic farmer (John Borski) and the Organic School Project in Chicago led by caterer Greg Christian. Woven through this montage are the story of an obese 12-year-old and the unheeded warnings of Cassandra figures in public health.
It's a lot to digest.
Fortunately, a few of segments stand out among the fast-paced dishing of statistics and talking heads. One is a sort of time-lapse treatment of epidemiological maps of obesity over the last 30 years or so. As one map fades into the next, the accelerating growth of our collective girth becomes clear. (Click the maps above to see larger versions. What a difference just 10 years make.)
Another powerful section features a U.S. Department of Health & Human Services announcement that Shrek will be the spokesmonster for its campaign to combat child obesity. As it happens, Shrek also is spokesmonster, or at least the pretty face on the label, of innumerable unhealthy processed foods marketed to children, from M&Ms to McDonald's to Twinkies and beyond. Can you say "mixed message"? Are you surprised to learn that the HHS campaign was dreamed up by the Ad Council and Big Food reps?
Marching for cookies
The scene that really dropped my jaw, though, was one of parents' staging a protest march for the restoration of junk food to schools in California after the state banned it from school vending machines. When you think of all the things wrong in our society and our schools, these people are out there demanding cookies for their kids? That vignette spotlights just how high are the hurdles that good-food advocates face.
Unfortunately, the moviemakers, like the rest of us, come up short in figuring out what the heck to do about this public-health catastrophe. After all the indictments of government programs and Big Food's indifference to public health, the solutions illustrated (apart from Borski and the Organic School Project) focus on actions that some governments and businesses have undertaken to get people more active.
As many of the people in the film suggest, however, we eat far more than we can exercise away. We've got to address the food intake part, the part where we need to stanch the flow of cheap-cheap-cheap high-fructose corn syrup into every processed food imaginable. We need to replace it with real, whole foods as they grow in and on the earth, before the application of sweeteners, emulsifiers, preservatives, flavor enhancers, artificial coloring and heaven knows what else. (Never mind issues like the ethical treatment of workers or animals.) The mystery is how to get more people to embrace that healthier approach in the face of endless promotion by Big Food marketers and a growing ignorance of how to cook.
"Killer at Large" would be a great video to show someone who is in denial about the extent or gravity of our obesity epidemic. SOLE food believers, though, may find themselves crying in their local, organic beer and wondering whether a turnabout is possible in the face of the relentless marketing and incestuous relationship between Big Food and federal lawmakers and regulators.
"Killer at Large" is available on DVD from the Disinformation Company and from Amazon.com; run time 102 minutes plus 80 minutes of extras, including commentary, excluded scenes and an educational version.