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Thinking big: ‘edu-tainment’

The Times: Thinking big: ‘edu-tainment’

“when activists stage a protest at the home of the Royal Dutch Shell chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, they end up staying for tea.”

September 04, 2004

As Morgan Spurlock challenges a fast food nation, Arwa Haider discovers why he and others are using cinema to make a difference

There’s a revolution happening in our cinemas. No longer are local multiplexes screening only action fantasies and rom-coms, they’re also showing a new breed of documentary film whose aim is to provoke thought, to challenge the way we live, and ultimately to change it.

Michael Moore deserves some credit for getting the ball rolling with Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, which proved that films with a message can make money as well as a political point. But there’s more than Moore out there; this summer, it has been impossible to ignore the buzz surrounding Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s startling, humorous fast food documentary, which goes on general release here on Friday.

Super Size Me centres on 33-year-old Spurlock’s personal experiment: to live for a month consuming only items available from the McDonald’s chain, to eat everything on the menu at least once, and to “supersize” his portions whenever offered. His inspiration for this strange diet was the media frenzy around America’s obesity epidemic, particularly the story of two overweight schoolgirls who attempted to sue McDonald’s. The resulting film has gained accolades from the Sundance Festival (Spurlock, pictured, won the Director’s Award 2004) to MTV. It’s a bright blend of road movie (he interviews children and adults across America, including a record-breaking Big Mac devotee) and body horror — on around 5,000 calories daily, it’s unsurprising that Spurlock grows flabby, but other side-effects are shocking; his GP warns him that his liver resembles “pâté”, while his limp libido is another test for his vegan girlfriend.

I had imagined meeting Spurlock over a milkshake, but our rendezvous takes place in a posh hotel, with purer refreshments (“You want some water?” chirps the filmmaker, back in shape after 14 months. “You got it!”). He has good reason to be jovial: “Super Size Me has taken more than $10 million in the States since it opened in May,” he says. “That’s an incredible accomplishment for a documentary. My goal was to make an entertaining film that would make people think about how they lived.”

Super Size Me has also been a hit in Australia and France — outside the Champs Elysées multiplexes in Paris, huge images of Spurlock gorging on fries flank posters for blockbusters such as Spider-Man 2. What could have sharpened our mass appetite for this kind of diversion? Well, there’s the rise of reality television, for a start.

“We now have the idea that watching ordinary people is just as dramatic and engaging as a Hollywood movie,” says Spurlock. “People who would never normally go see a documentary are suddenly interested.”

With an estimated budget of $300,000, Super Size Me uses poppy graphics to convey statistics (“McDonald’s feeds more than 46 million people a day”; “Left unabated, obesity will surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in America”), yet doesn’t become patronising “edu-tainment”.

Spurlock explains: “I loved Bowling for Columbine, and wanted to make animation a big part of my film – it means you can deal with off-colour subjects in an inoffensive way.”

Not so inoffensive, from McDonald’s perspective. The fast food empire’s wounded reaction has been one of the most fascinating aspects of Super Size Me, and a progression from the 1990s “McLibel” (in which McDonald’s sued two Britons who accused the company of a series of questionable practices). From initially dismissing Spurlock’s film as a gimmick, McDonald’s ceased “supersize” portions (but claimed that the timing was coincidental), and even advertised in the national press, including a full-page in The Times (August 19, 2004): “What may surprise you is how much of the film we agree with . . . If you eat too much and do too little, it’s bad for you. What we don’t agree with is the idea that eating at McDonald’s is bad for you.” There’s a similar counterwebsite: www.supersizeme-thedebate.co.uk.

Spurlock, though, is confident in his research: “Everything that happened to me in the film is truthful. I was on a path to heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure . . .” Not forgetting impotence! “Oh my gosh – every guy in the world needs to know about that! You will never hear companies talk about disease or depression, as a result of excessive fast food consumption.

“And what do you get when you turn on the news? Information that’s come through this media conglomerate filter, that doesn’t want to offend advertisers. Independent documentaries are one of the last bastions for free speech; you can say what you think in an accessible arena. Anyone can put a message on the internet, but it’s so vast, good luck finding it!”

There’s a ghost in the Hollywood machine — or perhaps a Western movement has been swayed by bestselling literature such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which accuses giant corporations of boosting profits by exploiting workers in the Third World. Worthy issues, from fair trade to recycling, have become cool. Klein appears in a slick new globalisation documentary, The Corporation, a big-screen collaboration between co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot, and the lawyer Joel Bakan (who has written an accompanying book). Like Super Size Me, it splices pop culture and hard information — slapstick comedy footage illustrates economic jargon, for instance. The Corporation’s star soundbites feature Moore and Noam Chomsky, but most striking are its interviews with powerful capitalists and CEOs, including the chairman of Goodyear, and an IBM vice-president; it doesn’t merely preach to the converted.

Abbot earnestly hopes that “the film will contribute to change made possible by ever-growing awareness”.

Achbar agrees: “I think it will spark a lot of dialogue . . . Our joint goal is to get people to see the institution of the corporation in an entirely new light. We’ve already heard from people that they can’t walk down the street and look at corporate logos the same way any more.”

The Corporation presents a flurry of unsettling facts: the business corporation has been legally defined as “a person” since the 19th century; virtually everything can be patented or copyrighted, from living organisms to the song Happy Birthday. It’s poignant and frequently hilarious; when activists stage a protest at the home of the Royal Dutch Shell chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, they end up staying for tea. The film’s main snag, however, is that there are really too many pressing issues to take in all at once, from sweatshop labour to branding, censorship, outrageous taxes and environmental ruin. What it does is set a precedent, highlighting the need for further “intelligent blockbusters”.

Both The Corporation and Super Size Me end on a provocative note, and Spurlock points out that his documentary hits closer to home than British viewers might actually want to admit. No longer can we point with wry amusement across the Atlantic, secure in the knowledge that this couldn’t happen here: “This all-American way of over-consuming and under-exercising — now, we’ve franchised it all over the world; the UK has become the third fattest country, behind America and Australia. And you guys are on the verge of the EU constitution; some of these standardised regulations sound so American! The next thing you know, you’re gonna have a country that looks like Kansas.”

These films flaunt a renewed conviction that ordinary people can transform their surroundings – remember the scene in Bowling for Columbine in which two injured students persuade a supermarket empire to stop selling bullets? It’s an ideal that creates intriguing possibilities, and it is increasingly accessible. “Everything in Super Size Me was produced with over-the-shelf software, that any consumer could buy,” Spurlock says. “It’s a wake-up call; now’s your chance to turn the tide.” Whose manifesto will hit the big screen next? Head to your local multiplex for major entertainment, with food for thought to take away.

Super Size Me opens on Sep 10 (www.supersizeme.com); The Corporation opens on Oct 29 (www.thecorporation.tv/uk)

Side orders

Some other outlets for meaty issues

SURPLUS (2003) Erik Gandini and Johan Söderberg’s edgy documentary, subtitled Terrorized Into Being Consumers, critiques the Bush Administration’s motives for war

ERGO The revamped British “lifestyle magazine for conscious consumers” including entertainment and fashion, will be out in November (www.ergoliving.com)

ANTI-APATHY A transatlantic collective whose lively events mix club culture and special guests with newsworthy themes (www.antiapathy.org)

EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG (Disinformation Company) A hip, solid collection of “anti-media” essays including Naomi Klein and the historian Howard Zinn

THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE (2000) Documentary depicting public protests against the World Trade Organisation summit in 1999; narrators include Susan Sarandon

MAC AND ME (1988) Incidentally, McDonald’s got to the big screen first, with this derivative kids’ movie about a cute alien — check out the burger bar song ‘n’ dance sequence . . .

royaldutchshellplc.com and its sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellenergy.website, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net and shell2004.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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