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FIRST PERSON | Curt Ellis on How Docs Like ‘Weight of the Nation’ Are Making America Healthier

FIRST PERSON | Curt Ellis on How Docs Like 'Weight of the Nation' Are Making America Healthier

Not long after I graduated from college, I co-created the 2007 documentary “King Corn,” working with my cousin Aaron Woolf (director/producer) and my best friend Ian Cheney (co-producer) to tell the story of one tiny acre of grain and its fate in America’s big food system.

It’s been four years since I’ve watched our film in full (though my parents tell me they still enjoy it). One image has stuck with me more than other during that time, the shot right before the closing credits: a high-angle wide captured by Aaron from atop a grain bin, of Ian and me standing on the edge of our empty field, surveying the square of black dirt that was left after we trucked our harvest to the elevator.

We had spent our year, it turned out, growing 10,000 pounds of fast food. Enough feed for 4,000 corn-fed hamburgers; enough starch to make the corn syrup for 57,000 cans of soda. It was a vast accomplishment and an incredible amount of corn we had grown — but we weren’t proud of where our harvest would go.

The food we grew in “King Corn” left our farm to fuel an epidemic of obesity vividly captured in HBO’s new series “The Weight of the Nation” (which you can now watch online). The statistics have largely worsened since our film came out: two in three Americans are overweight, one in three is obese, and one in two of our children of color is expected to develop Type II diabetes during their lifetimes. “Diabetes follows obesity as night follows day,” as Thomas Friedman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains in the film. We’re already spending $147 billion treating diet-related diseases each year — a figure that is expected to reach $344 billion by 2018.

Watching “The Weight of the Nation” is not exactly an uplifting experience. How can it be? The series explores the link between poverty and obesity (of the 10 fattest states, nine are also among the poorest), and compares the $220 million the USDA spends annually on nutrition education with the $30 billion the food industry spends each year on advertising. The problems, as the film makes clear, are mighty.

But if I’ve learned anything in the five years since our film “King Corn” came out, it’s that the solutions to our nation’s problems of food and health are mighty, too — and those solutions can be fueled by film.

Films have a unique ability to provoke empathy and motivate audiences to take action. Viewers respond extra viscerally to stories about food — something the print journalist Upton Sinclair noted when his slaughterhouse exposé “The Jungle” came out in 1906: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

“The Weight of the Nation” draws in its audience with personal stories like that of Sofia, a talented and likeable 14-year-old dancer who learns that the dark ring around her neck is a sign of insulin resistance and impending Type II diabetes. Statistics reinforce the universality of Sofia’s experience and the urgency of addressing the problem: HBO quotes research from the Bogulusa Heart Study showing that 77% of subjects who were obese as children stayed obese as adults. Still, it’s the human voices that best motivate the audience to take action, like the school nurse who breaks down crying in fear for her students: “They are our future… they need us… they need us to care.”

Foundations and philanthropists have come to recognize the emotional power of film as a change-making tool every bit as important as researching, lobbying and community organizing. The distribution of “King Corn” was underwritten by partners like the Fledgling Fund and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; “The Weight of the Nation” received support from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Kaiser Permanente. Savvy funders like these don’t see their support as “giving money away” — they’re looking for the initiative that, dollar-for-dollar, will give them the greatest impact their philanthropic investment can buy. And film, they’ve decided, is sometimes just that.

Translating on-screen emotion into on-the-ground action isn’t easy. In our case, we first sought to make that link at the community level. We launched “King Corn” into theaters with Balcony Releasing, and simultaneously screened it in hundreds of churches and schools, projected it on the walls of bars and barns, and showed it (strangely) at an indoor driving range to a packed house of farmers in the midst of an Iowa snowstorm. At locally organized events like these, volunteers signed people up to join the local Slow Food chapter, subscribe to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, or take action on a petition to update the Farm Bill. Change took root before the audience even left their seats.

In HBO’s case, and operating on a much more powerful financial scale, their outreach campaign involves a close partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Working closely with scientists and policymakers, the release of “The Weight of the Nation” was timed to coincide with a national conference on obesity and health hosted by the government itself. In just a few short weeks, the series has driven renewed national focus to the issue of obesity.

In both our experience and HBO’s, the number of people that will watch our films start-to-finish is far smaller than the audience our projects will touch in other ways. Some of the greatest change-making value of a documentary is as a news hook: films make important stories easier to cover. When there’s a Hollywood angle to exploit, suddenly farm subsidies become engaging breakfast conversation on “Good Morning America,” or a small-town paper decides it can profile a local child struggling with obesity on its front page. As filmmakers, we always strive to gain a bigger audience for our work — but as advocates we have to recognize that our greatest impact may lie in giving others an excuse to cover the topics we care about.

It’s clear from the buzz around “The Weight of the Nation” that the film is driving the public conversation around food and health forward quickly and powerfully. But this is just the beginning. Production is pregnancy; films launch their lives when distribution starts — and with multiple platforms for exhibition, community screening campaigns catching fire, and filmmakers hitting the lecture circuit to share their stories for years after the premiere, the impact of “The Weight of the Nation” is only in its infancy. What reforms will the series catalyze in Washington? How will those who see the series be motivated to change their lives?

In my case, I was one of the people who experienced “King Corn” — admittedly more deeply than others — and decided to do something.

It was that last shot in our film that kept haunting me, that moment of realization Aaron captured on screen: my best friend and I had wanted to get our hands in the dirt and grow food, but we’d grown fast food. We had squandered our year, and we had squandered a square of dirt that held some of the richest topsoil in the world.

So last August, Ian and four other collaborators and I launched a national organization called FoodCorps. Now there are 50 young people (average age 25) in teams across 10 states spending a year of national service in high-obesity, low-income schools. FoodCorps service members teach kids about what healthy food is and where it comes from, they build and tend school gardens that help children learn to love their fruits and vegetables, and they partner with chefs and farmers and cafeteria workers to get healthy food from local farms served in school meals. It’s a three-ingredient recipe — knowledge, engagement and access — that links kids to healthy food.

I can’t claim that “King Corn” or “The Weight of the Nation” or any film will change the world — but every film changes lives. And when our first class of FoodCorps service members stand back from their school gardens at harvest-time this summer, I think they’ll realize they’ve been changed too — as they look out over a square of dirt they’re proud of.

Curt Ellis is the co-creator of the documentaries “King Corn” (a co-production of Mosaic Films Incorporated and ITVS), “The Greening of Southie,” “Big River,” “Truck Farm,” and the upcoming film “The Search for General Tso.” He is also co-founder and Executive Director of FoodCorps, the national service program for healthy school food.

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