That Sugar Film

Long overdue a good hard look, the omnipresence of sugar in our modern diets has in recent years become a central concern for those tasked with safeguarding population health. Aussie documentarian Damon Gameau is the latest provocateur to dip his spoon in with That Sugar Film, an energetic overview of the detrimental effects sugar can have, physically and socially. While it’s fairly late to the table when it comes to new information, the doco makes up for tardiness with energy and humour that should appeal to the younger, more at-risk audience.

Undergoing an experiment with unavoidable comparisons to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, Gameau sets himself up as subject to discover what 40 teaspoons of sugar a day (the Australian average intake) does to his body, which had previously been sugar-free for some years. The rub; he can’t go for the conventional sugar-bombs like soft drink and candy, but must instead get his sugar from foods marketed as healthy, low-fat junk alternatives.

It sounds like a perverse amount of sugar to be ingesting, but after his first breakfast of muesli, low fat yoghurt and fruit juice, the filmmaker has already hit his half-way point for the day. One of the film’s most effectively made points is just how much of our food has sugar added to it, and in what quantities. At the end of the month-long experiment, his body expresses unsurprising unhappiness with the ordeal; his liver is inundated with fat, he on the cusp of Type 2 diabetes, at risk of heart disease, and his gut has expanded more than 10 centimetres.

However, much of this material has already been well covered in all manner of media with even a passing interest in nutrition, and usually with less mugging for the camera. The film’s central ‘eating lots of sugar is bad’ premise isn’t exactly headline-grabbing stuff, but when Gameau shows his journalistic chops and points the camera at others, things get a bit more substantial. A trip to a small Aboriginal village proves a great case study for the community-led fight back against sugar. Once the leading per-capita consumer of Coca-Cola in the world, the village of Amata was able to dramatically turn its health around with a programme of nutritional education and tweaks to the local supermarkets stock habits. This chapter closes on a sour note, as the Australian government pulled funding for the project.

A trip to Kentucky in the US then sees the filmmaker meet a teenager whose addiction to Mountain Dew is so severe that, at 17, his entire mouth has rotten into a mire of brown mush and jagged tooth stubs. Here the film decides to cash in some gross-out capital, and lingers far longer than necessary on ultra-close-ups inside the young man’s mouth as a community dentist begins pulling out his decayed teeth and replacing them with dentures. This chapter too closes with less than a grin, as letter from Mountain Dew explains that, in moderation, the drink is part of a healthy diet, and the teen with a fresh mouth of fake teeth says he fully intends to keep ‘doing the Dew’.

The film skirts the issue of food industry power in governmental decision making, rather than going in for a probing expose, which would have made for a far more urgent film. That Sugar Film instead falls back on the easier, though arguably less effective, strategy of consumer education and choice; if we don’t eat sugar, problem solved.

When not resorting to Skype chats with his girlfriend and general man-child antics to tell the story, Gameau often turns on the razzle-dazzle through the likes of celebrity-fronted vignettes (Hugh Jackman, Steven Fry), quirky editing and bold graphics to keep talking-head segments engaging, and even a big musical number to close things out. For the weathered documentary audience it might seem a bit patronising and uneven, but it also might just be the spoonful of cinematic sugar a school-aged audience need to help the life-affecting nutritional advice go down.

Article originally published on 

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