Sugar_Coated-Filmmaker“Almost everything we eat these days is spiked with sugar, in one form or another. It’s disguised with many, many different names. We are talking about an international multi-billion dollar industry that has refined a lot more than sugar. It’s refined it’s messaging and its ‘pitch’ to the public, one spoonful at a time,” the Emmy-nominated and Gemini Award-winning filmmaker Michèle Hozer (Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, Shake Hands with The Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire), tells Ottawa Indie Fest during a recent interview about her feature documentary Sugar Coated.

Sugar Coated takes a hard look at the sugar industry and the tactics that has health experts calling sugar the new tobacco. As obesity rates skyrocket and doctors treat the first generation of children suffering from fatty liver disease, this compelling investigative doc, which screens at Ottawa’s independent Mayfair Theatre on May 21st at 6:30pm, exposes the sugar industry’s systematic hijacking of scientific study to bury evidence that sugar is, in fact, toxic.

For over 40 years, Big Sugar has deflected threats to its multi-billion dollar empire through creative PR and tactics strikingly similar to the way the tobacco industry disguised its products are addictive and cause fatal illnesses. The film features rare archival footage, secret documents and interviews with health crusaders Gary Taubes, Dr. Robert Lustig, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Dr. Cristin Kearns and Stanton Glantz, working together to reverse the trend threatening the health and economy of the nation.

The harmful effects of sugar have been know for some time. What attracted you to make a film about sugar at this time?

I’ve been a career dieter all my life. I think most women are. I’m also a jogger. I count calories. But who knew that all calories are not created equal? I didn’t. Not until we actually dug into the research for Sugar Coated.

That’s just one of a host of surprising facts in the film by the way. I actually stumbled across the dark side of sugar, if I can put it that way, when I went to a lecture on Alzheimer’s in 2012. Who isn’t terrified of getting Alzheimer’s? I wanted to know more. During that lecture, the presenter made a connection between diet and this disease of the brain. And yes, he alluded to research that suggested sugar might also play a role. Well, that really intrigued me.

I discovered a fascinating body of research, controversial writings from Gary Taubes and a viral video from Dr. Robert Lustig that on last count was over 5million hits. Then, Dr. Cristin Kearns’ discovery of the sugar industry documents from a defunct sugar factory, convinced me: there is a much larger story to be told.

Is sugar the new tobacco?

Well, it’s really all about marketing. Both industries utilized the same PR tactics to manage public concerns about their products. You’ve heard the expression “history repeats itself.” We’ve been through this whole debate before.

Forty years ago, people were actually fighting to put tobacco-like warning labels on sugary goods. And then, somehow, the debate just faded away. Why? What happened? Do we all have collective amnesia? Well, I’m not going to give away the whole film. But you will be surprised to learn just how similar the sugar and the tobacco industry actually are.

What were some of the challenges you encountered in making this film?

The main challenge was to make the science accessible. The way sugar affects our bodies is an important factor in the film but I didn’t want to overwhelm an audience with a torrent of statistics, factoids, and data. Instead, I looked for patterns in human behaviour that make up the larger story arc.

What does the debate tell us about ourselves, about the secret playbook of industry, and the power of social media, or contemporary “Mad Men” to manipulate our tastes and desires? I knew this would speak to a larger audience then a scientific analysis on the dangers of fructose

SugarCoated Graphic

What kind reaction/feedback have you received after the film’s previous screenings from the sugar industry?

On the morning of our world premiere at Hot Docs this past April, the Canadian Sugar Institute came out with a press release encouraging potential viewers of the film to seek “balanced information.” They even came out with a response sheet attempting to nullify the extensively researched and footnoted facts from our media kit. Some of the members of the Sugar Institute actually came out to our premiere screening, but after seeing the film, they decided not to participate in the lively Q&A afterward.

We all love sugar and for most of us it is a large part of our everyday lives in some form or other. What are you hoping to achieve by making this film and why?

I am not an advocate. I am a storyteller, first and foremost. My job is not to scold the viewer. Or hit them over the head with a candy bar (as a good friend of mine would say). I mean, who doesn’t love chocolate? Can you imagine a birthday party without cake? I was born across from a chocolate factory in Belgium. I was too young to remember this myself, but my mom tells me you could smell the aroma of chocolate from morning to night on the street. Talk about a kid’s paradise! One of my favorite guilty pleasures is still the classic pain au chocolate.

My objective here is to tell a good story, one that provokes conversation, gets people thinking in a new way, and perhaps, adds another voice to a story that affects so many millions of people. Will there be change? I think back to a YouTube video I came across in which a tobacco executive states that some pregnant smokers would prefer to have smaller babies anyway. We laugh about that now. It’s so outrageous. But that was only a couple decades ago.

Right now, we may be witnessing the beginning of real transformative change in the way we see sugar and the process food industry. If that’s so, you can thank the cast of characters in Sugar Coated, including a gutsy dentist in Denver by the name of Cristin Kearns. She’s one of my favorite characters in this film, and you’ll understand why when you see the film.

You know the other thing, I really need to say is this. Almost everything we eat these days is spiked with sugar, in one form or another. It’s disguised with many, many different names. We are talking about an international multi-billion dollar industry that has refined a lot more than sugar. It’s refined it’s messaging and its ‘pitch’ to the public, one spoonful at a time. In the end, I hope this film is an antidote.

If nothing else, through all this, somehow I’ve been the Mother Confessor for all my sugar- addicted friends. We all have guilty pleasures. I still long for that pain-au-chocolat. But I’ve trained myself to walk away from the glass counter. I’m happy just to savour the aroma, just like I did on the streets of Brussels

Sugar Coated screens at the Mayfair Theatre on May 21st at 6:30pm followed by a Q & A with director Michèle Hozer.

For more information about the film and future screenings check out the film’s website.

And if you are interested in knowing how much sugar is in your food, count how many teaspoons of sugar you actually eat, and build Canada’s first nutrition database with free sugar calculations, you can download the free One Sweet Ap Sugar Tracker from iTunes.


CKCU Ottawa A Luta Continua: Interview with director, editor and producer Michèle Hozer about her documentary film Sugar Coated.
Host: Monique Fuller
Recorded: 9:00 AM on May 15th, 2015

*Monique Fuller’s interview republished with permission.

 

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