Sundance documentary takes on weighty issue of food culture in America
Before she directed her latest documentary, "Fed Up," Stephanie Soechtig thought she had a handle on what was in her food.
"You think you know the whole story when it comes to food, but you have no idea," she said during a recent interview from her home in Los Angeles. "I'm heavily involved in food issues and I've seen all the other food docs. But we've really just scratched the surface. There's so much more out there."
"Fed Up," now showing in the Sundance Film Festival's U.S. Documentary Competition, follows a group of children for more than two years, as they try to "diet and exercise" and live healthier lives.
Through interviews with experts, the film fills in some of the food gaps Soechtig mentioned namely what she describes as a decades-long misinformation campaign by large food companies, aided by the federal government.
Before you dismiss this as just another documentary about food and weight loss, consider that some of the most trustworthy names in news and documentary filmmaking are part of the team: Katie Couric is executive producer and narrator; also involved were Laurie David, producer of the Academy Award-winning global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," and Regina Scully, executive producer of "Invisible War," a documentary about rape in the military.
And Soechtig is no documentary novice. After graduating with a degree in journalism from New York University, she produced documentaries for "20/20," "Primetime Live" and "The O'Reilly Factor." And in 2009, she directed and produced "Tapped," which examines the bottled-water industry and its effects on health and the environment.
"Fed Up" is the 37-year-old's first work to be accepted into Sundance.
What made you decide to make "Fed Up"?
The idea came from Katie [Couric]. She had this idea about the far-reaching consequences of obesity for kids and our country. For the movie's interpretation, I relied a lot on "Food Politics," by Marion Nestle [which addresses how the food industry influences nutrition and health]. I loved it when it came out [in 2002] and I had always wanted to develop that into a film. So I got out my highlighter and got excited about the possibilities.
Several Sundance documentaries have made an impact and created change, from "Supersize Me" in 2004 to "Blackfish" last year. Do you think "Fed Up" could bring about that kind of change in American food culture?
I would love to influence the way people think about food. I hope when people see this film they think of everything differently. I certainly don't eat the same way. The ultimate achievement would be to help somebody see through some clever marketing claims.
What were you eating that you now avoid?
For me, it was fat-free cream cheese. I'd have my bagel thin not even a whole bagel with fat-free cream cheese, thinking I had this whole-wheat healthy breakfast. But when you look at the list of ingredients, the fat-free cream cheese has 20 ingredients. This was eye-opening and it really ruined a lot of good food for me.
How did you find the children you followed?
We followed a larger group of kids at first; ultimately four made the film. We found them random ways contacting churches, synagogues, hospitals, local groups and schools. They kept video diaries, many for about two years, documenting their lives on such an intimate subject matter.
Were you surprised by their diaries?
Initially, I bought into the stereotype that they probably lacked willpower and were lazy, just playing video games. But that couldn't have been farther from the truth. These kids were all incredibly motivated; they exercised way more than I do. They were all trying so hard and thought they were making all the right decisions. That gave us, as filmmakers, a sense of purpose.
Most documentaries point the finger at someone. Who gets the blame in "Fed Up"?
There's not really one person or one entity, but the government has really failed us. Our public-policy legislation has sided with industry, not with citizens. Existing policy that went into effect years ago wasn't looking out for the American public and certainly not America's children. Families are following all the advice they've been told, and it's the wrong advice.
Having directed "Tapped" and now "Fed Up," why do you think you're drawn to food-related issues?
My dad is a chef and I was raised in a restaurant, so food has been a big part of my life. When I was a freshman in high school, I had to write a persuasive essay, and I wrote it about factory farms. That is what ultimately led me to be a journalist.
Getting this film out there. The real work begins now; making it is only half the battle. Now getting people to see it is the real challenge. It's on my plate for the next six months.
firstname.lastname@example.org 'Fed Up'
Upcoming screenings for this documentary about the food and weight-loss industries.
Monday, Jan. 20 • 3 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City
Wednesday, Jan. 22 • 9:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
Thursday, Jan. 23 • noon, Temple Theatre, Park City
Saturday, Jan. 25 • 9 a.m., Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City