When corporate interests turn to indie docs for influence, audiences are left in the dark
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Documentaries as advertising: Corporate interests turn to indie docs for influence; audiences in the dark
By Tim Schwab
100 Reporters, Dec 20, 2019
[excerpt only below]
Scott Hamilton Kennedy's 2008 documentary, The Garden, established him as a director to be watched.
The raw verité film brought to life a heartbreaking political fight between an immigrant-run community garden and an encroaching real estate developer, telling a sympathetic yet nuanced story of a besieged underclass—capturing both the weaknesses and strengths of David as he takes on Goliath.
Kennedy’s complex treatment of race, class, and power resonated with audiences and earned him an Oscar nomination. Which is why his latest turn in filmmaking, taking square aim at the activist class he sided with in The Garden, marked such a striking departure. "Food Evolution", Kennedy’s newest documentary, trades nuance for finger wagging, at once vilifying critics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and exalting the companies and scientists that promote these controversial crops.
The 2017 film is also remarkable for its provenance: Kennedy was commissioned and funded to make "Food Evolution" by a group called the Institute of Food Technologists, led by an agribusiness veteran who had worked for GMO giants including Monsanto and DuPont. These vested interests are not clearly disclosed to audiences.
Though most moviegoers might imagine that a director’s only client is his or her audience, the reality of documentary filmmaking is more complicated, as industry groups, advertising agencies and companies today hire filmmakers to tell their stories, which are released and streamed to the public as independent documentaries. In much the way that Facebook users have been targeted unwittingly for political propaganda and misinformation campaigns, viewers of documentary films have become captive, unsuspecting audiences for industry messaging that is shaping how we think about controversial topics, whether it is how we should grow food, manage the opioid addiction crisis, or address climate change.
New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle regrets agreeing to be interviewed for "Food Evolution", calling it a “highly sophisticated propaganda film for the food biotechnology industry”. She is featured in the film saying she hasn’t seen convincing evidence that GMOs are unsafe to eat, a statement that she says is so “hugely out of context” with her real views that she repeatedly asked Kennedy to remove her from the film. He refused.
Michael Pollan, best-selling author and journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley, also regrets participating in "Food Evolution", saying he agreed to be interviewed before Kennedy disclosed his funding from an industry group.
Pollan is featured in the film repeatedly speaking uncritically about GMOs, even though he has written unfavorably about the technology for decades, telling me he views GMOs as “mostly hype”.
Pollan and Nestle are not out-and-out opponents of GMOs, but they do offer high-level criticism — environmental concerns, health effects associated with pesticide usage, the outsize role that industry groups play in the GMO debate — that Food Evolution’s simplistic narrative ignores. The thesis of the film, as Nestle sees it, is that critics of GMOs are “anti-science, ignorant, and stupid”.
Kennedy markets the film as a “transparent” examination of genetically modified foods “through the unbiased lens of science”. Yet his camera seems less focused on the scientific discourse than on attacking the weakest critics of GMOs, who are shown in the least favorable light. Respectable professors like Pollan and Nestle are misrepresented to appear as tacit supporters of genetically modified foods (alongside an impressive stable of academic boosters), while Kennedy portrays critics of GMOs as a motley crew of fear-mongering charlatans and paid hit men and women from the anti-GMO industrial complex.
To many audiences, especially those who enter the film with little knowledge of the GMO issue, Food Evolution could come across as thoughtful, independent, investigative journalism. In its review, The New York Times praised the film as balanced and science-driven: “With a soft tone, respectful to opponents but insistent on the data, 'Food Evolution' posits an inconvenient truth for organic boosters to swallow: In a world desperate for safe, sustainable food, G.M.O.s may well be a force for good.”
The Times was one of the few news outlets to mention that the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) commissioned the documentary, but, in the same breath, distanced the film from any “Big Ag company or lobbying group.”
Yet the IFT, over the years, has pushed federal regulators to look favorably on pending GMO applications from Pioneer Hi-Bred (owned by DuPont) and Monsanto. And as Kennedy began work on Food Evolution, the elected president of the IFT, Janet Collins, was a veteran of Big Ag, whose resume included Monsanto, DuPont, and CropLife, a lobby group. The group’s decades of positive messaging on GMOs, such as its report titled, Biotech Foods Are As Safe, If Not Safer, Than Conventional Foods, is largely indistinguishable from industry talking points — or from Food Evolution’s narrative.
Moreover, the IFT’s role in "Food Evolution" (and the GMO industry’s role in the IFT) isn’t clearly disclosed to audiences. It wasn’t listed on the movie poster, in film festival programs, or theatrical listings, or on any of the online streaming platforms where the film is available today, including Hulu and Amazon. The only mention of the IFT is in the small print at the very end of the film credits, which describe the group as a “scientific society”. ... [article continues at URL above]