Food, Inc. and Under Our Skin
A Pair of Documentaries Proves Scarier than Anything Hollywood Can Concoct
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Credit: Magnolia Pictures
In the heat of the summer I have to confess that I sometimes get delirious and get distracted by the big, noisy summer blockbusters, and end up missing some of the smaller, more substantial films. So in an attempt to make up for that oversight, here is a pair of worthy documentaries that you can still catch in theaters: "Food, Inc." (still playing at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) and "Under Our Skin" (currently playing at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters).
If there aren't any horror films currently in theaters that look scary enough for you then you might want to consider watching these two documentaries because there's plenty to horrify you in these non-fiction works. In "Food, Inc." you discover information about what you eat that will make you think twice about what you put in your mouth, and in "Under Our Skin" you are exposed to the dual horrors of Lyme disease and the current state of health care. Between these two films you should have enough to keep you up at night.
Robert Kenner's "Food, Inc." is in the mode of Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel "The Jungle." Sinclair's 1906 novel focused primarily on the horrible conditions that existed in the U.S. meat packing industry. His book helped incite public outcry, which in turn led to the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Kenner would probably like nothing better than to stir a similar outcry with his documentary that looks more broadly to the food we eat and the process by which it gets to our plates.
Kenner presents a lot of information that people may be familiar with but by gathering it all together, he effectively connects the dots in such a manner that audiences will hopefully take note. Through multiple interviews with authors, farmers, and others, Kenner lays out the process of preparing food for mass consumption. The trend toward corporate, centralized control of the food industry has led to low quality food items that can be sold more and more cheaply in larger and larger quantities with seemingly less and less government oversight and accountability in regards to quality and safety.
Kenner shows that the poor conditions for the animals can also lead to greater health risks for consumers and for the workers (who are frequently illegal immigrants that feel they have no rights). Helping Kenner make a cogent argument for change or at the very least concern are Michael Pollan (author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" and "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World") and Eric Schlosser (author of "Fast Food Nation" and "Chew on This"). But while corporations and the politicians who seem to be representing rather than regulating them are often made the bad guys, Kenner doesn't let consumers or farmers completely off the hook either. Consumers and farmers have choices. For the farmers, it's not an easy choice and going against the big companies can have serious repercussions. Consumers have some easier choices, but those choices prove easier to make for those with more money. Consumers have the choice – for a price -- to buy organic or to buy higher end food items but they often prefer the cheaper, faster options.
In the end, "Food, Inc." tries to be a wake up call. It wants to jolt audiences out of complacency and acceptance. It presents a compelling and often disturbing portrait of the food industry in America and makes us wonder if there's been enough of an improvement since Upton Sinclair raked the muck back at the turn of the last century.
If problems in the food industry have been somewhat in the media eye with massive recalls and deaths from e coli, "Under Our Skin" turns out attention to something that has been more under the radar – Lyme disease. People may recall it is spread through ticks around the northeast part of the country, and that model Christie Brinkley was the first celebrity case to make the news. But most people probably don't know that Lyme Disease is affecting more people than West Nile and AIDS, or that a controversy has been raging about what the disease is exactly and how best to cure it. And that many people with the disease are caught in the middle of this debate and are not getting access to treatment.
Director Andy Abrahams Wilson was inspired to make the film after his sister was diagnosed with the illness. Like Kenner in "Food, Inc." Wilson in "Under Our Skin" is most effective at connecting the dots for viewers and explaining why we are in the position we are currently in. And as with "Food, Inc." the answers revolve primarily around greed, big business, and politicians. Wilson shows how the changes that have occurred in government regulations, health care, the pharmaceutical industry, and research have slowly led to a loss of checks and balances that have resulted in the government and science working less in the name of public interest and more in the name of big business. The medical debate over what's best for a patient has been tainted by politics, big business, and money.
This has meant that people who have chronic Lyme disease have face problems getting the disease diagnosed as such and consequently have been unable to get long-term treatment that often requires antibiotics. Some of these patients – a number of who share their harrowing stories – explain how they were told it was all in their heads and that they needed psychiatric treatment not medical treatment. The film shows how doctors who specialized in the disease and prescribed long-term treatment were sometimes forced out of the medical profession.
If the process of trying treat the disease weren't bad enough, Wilson shows how debilitating the disease itself can be for some of the victims. For some the disease has led to incapacitation, loss of energy, vision problems, loss of memory, and mental deterioration. Wilson explains that we are seeing an increase in diseases that jump from one species to another, and that during a time when many animal species are going extinct, viruses seem to be flourishing. So "Under Our Skin" plays out in part like a sci-fi horror film in which people are infected with a horrible virus that can take a devastating toll on the victim. And what makes it worse is that the people or organizations that should be there to help are not always there to help.
"Under Our Skin" delivers a piece of strong investigative journalism. The bulk of the interviews are with the victims themselves, allowing these people to finally speak out about both their disease and the obstacles that have been placed in their way. But Wilson also seeks out the doctors who claim there is no such thing as chronic Lyme disease or that the disease can't be transferred from a pregnant mother to her baby. But he counters these doctors' statements with conflicting stories from patients and other doctors. Wilson also counters his journalistic desire to ferret out information with a filmmaker's sense of trying to make his film look good. He shoots people in visually appealing ways and places his main interviewees in their environments so we are not simply bombarded with talking heads.
Both "Under Our Skin" and "Food, Inc." are designed as wake up calls, and both filmmakers would like nothing better than seeing their films prompt a more widespread public debate. But it's scary in "Under Our Skin" to see Lyme diagnosis guidelines written by a medical board that had members in the pockets of the insurance companies that were averse to paying for any lengthy antibiotic treatment. The Connecticut attorney general worries that there's a dangerous conflict of interest when many on the medical board are taking money from HMOs that have a vested interest in the published guidelines for a particular disease or illness. In the end, "Under Our Skin" proved to be the scariest film I've seen all year.
Companion viewing: "Flow," "An Inconvenient Truth," "Soylent Green," "Lymelife"
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