In the past decade, more than a dozen films have come out advocating health and environmental issues. Among the most notable are “Super Size Me,” “Food Inc.” and “Forks Over Knives.”

Other major health advocacy films

2004: “Super Size Me”

2005: “Thank you for Smoking”

2006: “Fast Food Nation”

2007: “King Corn,” “Sicko”

2008: “Food, Inc.,” “Food Matters”

2011: “Forks Over Knives,” “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead”

2012: “Genetic Roulette”

2013: “Soul Food Junkies,” “GMO OMG”

For those willing to watch, the films dig deep into problems facing the United States and/or the world in a way that is both informative and entertaining.

But are these films really making a difference? Are the people who need to see the films the most compelled to attend a screening or purchase the DVD? Or is it a classic case of “preaching to the choir”?


Among the latest in health advocacy films is “GMO OMG,” a documentary about genetically modified organisms found in most supermarket foods today and the stiff resistance by biotech and food corporations, such as Monsanto, DuPont and General Mills, to label foods as genetically modified.

Those same corporations have spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat recent voter propositions for labeling in California and Washington State.

Many Americans still don’t understand genetic modification. I have a physician friend who was even confused, thinking that natural hybridization of plants was the same as the much more sophisticated practice of inserting genes from unrelated plant, animal or bacterium into a plant that would not occur naturally.

Last Thursday, the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art held a screening of “GMO OMG” with a question-and-answer to follow with its director Jeremy Seifert. About 175 people attended.

Seifert was inspired to explore GMOs after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He read a “tiny story” on peasant farmers there burning genetically modified seed corn given them from Monsanto after the quake.

“I had been to Haiti before the earthquake and spent time in the slums, so I had some inkling of the poverty desperation and hunger there. When I read that 10,000 rural farmers marched in the streets and committed to burning the seeds, I didn’t understand why they would take such a radical approach. They are desperate people and could use the seeds. Why would they do that? I knew that they had a really great reason, not just a political one.”

Funded solely with his own credit card, Seifert went to Haiti and dove into the subject. They knew what many Americans didn’t. That the seeds were heavily dependent on chemical pesticides and the seed from the corn produced wasn’t usable for future crops. In other words, GMO seeds were not sustainable.

“When I came back from Haiti, it (GMOs) became more personal to me as a father. I found out that essentially we are surrounded by GMOs , almost inescapably, and the new reality in the world is that chemical companies are feeding us and our children,” says Seifert.

Power of film?

When asked if these advocacy films lead to change, Seifert has mixed feelings.

He suspects that some people who watched “Super Size Me” stopped going to McDonald’s, but that shortly after the film McDonald’s changed its slogan to “I’m Lovin’ It” and added some healthier menu items.

“But they are still selling a lot of hamburgers.”

“Did ‘Food Inc.’ alter the food system, I don’t know, but did it inspire maybe hundreds or thousands of CSAs (programs for buying shares of food produced on local farms) and people to participate in those programs, helping to grow more organic and local farmers, probably. And that’s a good thing.”

“Any of those touches or changes will eventually win over and overturn a food system that is making us sick. It’s just a matter of time.”

Local experts

Lizz Biswell, curator of education and public programs at C of C’s Halsey institute, strongly believes in the power of film.

“I absolutely think that health advocacy films can impact our daily lives, whether that is to charge up the converted or ignite the light bulb over another person’s head. Everyone has a different relationship with information sources,” says Biswell.

“These days, film is a research method. Not everyone will be inclined to research if their favorite foods are killing them, but if another person does the digging and presents it in an entertaining package, they’ll be more likely to actually hear the information.”

Local wellness expert and author, Dr. Ann G. Kulze, says health advocacy films, especially in combination with social media that keeps the message of the films alive, are “fantastic for raising awareness.”

But, she adds, awareness doesn’t not necessarily lead to change.

“Films have a great role to play, but do I think that a single film will cause social change, no,” says Kulze.

True change, she says, comes from a central authority gifted with orchestrating a campaign. As an example, she points to Center for Science in the Public Interest and its campaign against trans fats.

“They were so good at what they do that trans fat is now history,” says Kulze.

Meanwhile, a communications expert is more skeptical about a film’s ability to create social change.

Dr. Robert Westerfelhaus, associate communications professor at the College of Charleston, offers the most skeptical view, saying health advocacy films “preach to, and reconfirm the world view of the already converted.”

“Such films really don’t do much to alter the attitudes and habits of the average grocery store or restaurant consumer. And because they don’t, there is no economic incentive for food producers to substantially change the products they offer or the processes used to make them,” says Westerfelhaus.

“When it comes to food, whether eaten out or at home, most Americans are interested in convenience, efficiency and taste. The don’t bother themselves much about how that is accomplished, nor do they care.

“Many Americans are ignorant of, and frankly and indifferent to, where the food they eat comes from. When I lived in Indiana back in the late 1970s, the possibility of a farmers’ strike was big news. I remember a newscast during which a woman commented: “Why should I care about farmers? I get my food from Safeway.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.