Anybody else miss documentaries? And don’t point me to the documentary section of Netflix, or even worse off traditionally documentary-laden sources like the History Channel which is now filled with infotainment – content meant to entertain and inform, but I’d say, objectively, mostly to entertain.
Checking out What The Health – labelled a documentary but undoubtedly a piece of pure infotainment – I found myself staring at my phone trying to figure out if what I was seeing on screen was in fact true.
What The Health, with an acronym that hashtags nicely, is pretty popular. I have friends that have gone vegan because of it and I could see why. The entire thing plays like a horror movie. With statistics saying things like milk consumption increases prostate cancer by 34% and “each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%”, this film is more terrifying than El Orphanato, that Spanish film about a ghost boy wearing a sack over his head (yes, it’s really scary).
But I sat looking at the screen thinking, if roughly two slices of processed meat increases chances of colorectal cancer, my chances of getting it are currently sitting at 50,000%; my chances of getting prostate cancer probably in the hundreds of thousands. That didn’t seem right.
So I took to my phone.
And what I found is that What The Health is a good horror film about animal consumption being horrible, but that’s about all. The filmmaker cherry picked statistics to make the claims in the film more horrifying and persuasive. For instance, processed meat does increase your lifetime chance of getting colorectal cancer by 18%. But it’s explained like this:
> Each of us statistically has a 5% chance of getting colorectal cancer;
> Eating processed meat daily over a lifetime increases this chance by 1%;
> Therefore consuming processed meats regularly increases your chance of getting colorectal cancer to 6%;
> Meaning, consuming processed meats raises your lifetime chance of getting colorectal cancer by around 17% (which I suppose is adequately close to 18%) to 6%.
A more truthful way to say it would be that eating processed meats increases your chance of getting colorectal cancer by about 1% – let’s be honest, no one wants to consume anything that increases your chance of cancer. But 18% is much flashier to say. It sure scared the processed meat out of me.
Everyone agrees less processed meat is better for you, and a diet high in fruits and veggies is a good diet. Now, I’m not pro-meat, anti-vegan or anything like that. I’m just pro-truth. And that’s where I fall out with What The Health. The statistical claims are so wild, the investigation – going into Big Meat’s corporate office and asking run on questions of a receptionist who has no idea what’s happening and concluding there’s a conspiracy happening is just bad investigation.
Now if What The Health were presented as infotainment, I’d have no problem with it but it’s listed as a documentary when it’s anything but. And that’s what many films labelled documentary are now.
They focus on one person video taping their journey to find the “truth”.
I blame Michael Moore.
I’ve always liked Moore’s films, and I agree mostly with his politics, but I don’t look at his movies as documentaries. Moore pioneered the entire one man on a search for truth with Bowling For Columbine (2002), his anti-gun film that begins with a look at the circumstances that lead to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in the United States.
Watching it, I was persuaded but I also remember thinking it was not entirely accurate. In Bowling For Columbine there’s a famous scene where Moore learns Canadians feel so safe they don’t even lock their front doors, and he demonstrates it by walking into someone’s house in Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
Now as someone who grew up not far from Toronto, in a neighbourhood said to be safer than Toronto, I can tell you we always locked our freaking doors. My friends in Toronto who saw the documentary were all amused by this scene in Moore’s film because what he showed was definitely not the case for any of them. For years afterward when I travelled, people debating the gun issue in America would look at me and say, Canada’s so safe you guys don’t even lock your doors. To which I’d have to shake my head and lay down some truth.
Ultimately, Moore had found one anecdotal point and used it to generalise truth – but one anecdote does not make something true.
Moore’s success with Bowling For Columbine ushered in a new era of infotainment and now I have to fact check everything I’m told whenever some fearless filmmaker is sefie-ing their quest for truth in their self-proclaimed documentary.
I miss when the History Channel was the World War II channel and 85% of its programming was black and white footage with a snooty British narrator discussing the tactics of blitzkrieg. Now it’s all tattooed guys with goatees rummaging through garage sales – this is the new history, these are what passes for documentaries.
Watch these new “documentaries” understanding they’re infotainment, and fact check things yourself (luckily the Internet exists). Because no matter how entertaining something is you’re entitled to know the truth.
Avid writer Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.