Documentary Site started as an outlet for my interests in documentary 15 years ago. Since then, my presence has expanded to writing, managing Twitter fans, and connecting with makers, promoters, and fans of documentary. Probably three of the coolest things to come from this endeavor are being invited to write for POV, visiting Kartemquin studios, and leading a discussion after a screening of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. My current project involves watching and writing about 365 documentaries in 2014. Feel free to send along your suggestions via Twitter @documentarysite!

#365Docs: Eat Your Vegetables Edition (49-52/365)

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I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

This post encompasses four documentaries about health and eating: Forks Over Knives (Lee Fulkerson, 2011), Hungry for Change (James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch, 2012), Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead (Joe Cross and Kurt Engfehr, 2010), and Food Matters (James Colquhoun and Carlo Ledesma, 2008). The basic message underlying all four documentaries is “eat your vegetables,” but each one raises that point amid multiple other messages and myths about health, food, “food-like substances,” nutrition, and medications.

An interesting balance across all four of these documentaries lies in the use of experts versus every people. Fulkerson builds his documentary around the work of T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, who advocate for vegan diets, but he incorporates other voices from people on the street to other experts to everyday people who experience the benefits, which includes himself. Hungry for Change also features a range of talking heads, from experts to everyday people. Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead reverses the priorities by reducing the number of experts to a few and instead focusing on a few key individuals and their experiences, while Food Matters seems exclusively experts. The most accessible and interesting of these four use a balance of experts and everyday people to bring their points forward, instead of relying on mostly experts. After a while, experts and their views run together, especially if they gain little opportunity to express personality as well as information.

The idea of the individual becoming an expert based on experiences shows up in Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead most prominently through the likeable Joe Cross, who advocates for juice fasts as a means of front-loading nutrition and losing weight. The credit line for Cross’s chef in the credits gave me pause in accepting his expertise, but to his credit he includes another story similar to his own throughout the second half of the film. In Forks Over Knives, Fulkerson’s trial run of a vegan diet becomes part of the documentary, but not really a prominent one, and even then he represents himself as a knowledge seeker, not an expert. With Hungry for Change, the individuals who gain expertise seem no different from the other experts in the film. Showing these experts’ journeys through health makes these ideas more accessible.

With their heavy reliance on talking heads, fortunately all four documentaries find ways to break things up visually. Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead offers the best animations, while Hungry for Change offers a series of dramatizations of a woman undergoing changes in her life toward the ones the documentary advocates. She represents all the bad habits at first and appears miserable, and as she makes different decisions, she undergoes a transformation that finds her with a better life and outlook. While I understand the point of these dramatizations, I wonder why the makers did not include a similar line from a male perspective. Of course, cheesy archival footage comes into play — when will they run out of those 1950s educational films? Atomic Cafe makes the best use of them, after all. And to their collective credit, all four documentaries make their points without using graphic animal abuse footage.

I came to these four documentaries through Netflix’s suggestion system, which in part is based on similarity and in part based on hyping Netflix’s own programs. It seems that everything is similar to Orange is the New Black, sometimes. But is grouping documentaries by similar subject a good strategy to encourage long-term viewing? From these four, I can’t say that I recommend the “bender” approach to watching documentaries with similar subjects. By the time I got to the fourth one, I was weary of yet another talking head and yet another cheesy piece of archival footage telling me that vegetables are good for me.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.