I follow a vegan diet. The documentary What the Health aligns with my beliefs and principles for the most part, but I wouldn’t want to tell that to any skeptics of my lifestyle.
I feel I may have to explain this one.
You see, I fear these sorts of documentaries too often preach to the converted and only serve to rile or amuse everyone else. Like PETA so often does, What the Health has managed to bandy the plant-eaters together while making vegans seem ever so slightly ridiculous to outsiders. Don’t get me wrong, there are some important facts to take away from this film that could change lives, but you have to strip it down of its Americanisms first before you can get to the stuff that truly matters.
American documentaries definitely have their tropes. What the Health has the typical foreboding music, contrived revelations, blatant agenda and ominous voice-overs as well as manipulative editing, unbalanced evidence and heavy-handed sentimentality. What I found particularly frustrating was that the continuous ‘no comment’ responses from companies were seen as shocking and conclusive disclosures of guilt, when in fact it was just a frustrating termination of communication. The filmmakers were in such desperate need for a structured battle between good and evil (the good guys being vegans and the bad guys the meat/dairy/pharmaceutical industries) that they moulded whatever they could to make every situation seem black and white. If you have done any research into veganism, you will know that there are few issues on the subject that are completely black and white. The conclusion is always to go vegan, but the evidence is usually complex.
For a market used to seeing slick, multi-million blockbusters I understand the need for these types of tropes, yet they fail to convince anyone who isn’t already invested in the topic. For me, documentaries should attempt to be as balanced as possible in their arguments so as to convince the viewer that what they’re seeing is the truth. Reality isn’t a movie, and although an element of creativity is required to make a satisfying and worthwhile film, I feel What the Health went way to far in its desire to shock and entertain.
For instance, at one point there was an accusation that the dairy industry was guilty of institutionalised racism. When there is so many horrendous and proven facts out there, this sort of statement just makes a mockery of the whole campaign.
That being said, there were a lot of incredibly hard-hitting facts and video footage in What the Health that devastated me, including the following (proven) statements:
- 350 million people have diabetes
- 1 serving of processed meat a day increases the risk of developing diabetes by 51%
- The American Diabetes Association features recipes with red and processed meats
- The World Health Organization report classified bacon and sausages to be carcinogenic to humans
- The American Cancer Association encourages the consumption of turkey and canned meats
- 1 out of 4 deaths in the US is caused by cancer
- Within minutes of eating meat bacteria toxins, the body is detrimentally effected
- There is a strong link between dairy and autoimmune disease
The list goes on and on. It was an eye opening experience, but the makers of What the Health created something I believe could be easily dismissed and mocked if certain scenes were viewed out of context. I am not apologetically vegan by any means, but I do believe in the need to educate and not alienate as very few vegans were born knowing the information shown in this documentary.
And so, as the saying goes…