INTERVIEW: Sugar Blues: About the Maliciousness of the White Poison
The director investigates the impact of hundreds of years of sugar consummation on individuals and society. She discovers the huge power this white powder has played in history right through to the present day. She uncovers links between mental and behavioural disorders and excessive consumption of sugar.
An interview with Andrea Culková, the director of Sugar Blues
You had been working on your film for over five years and it has recently been premiered at a prestigious film festival CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. How did the audience welcome the film and what were some of their questions during the final Q&A’s?
We were presenting a five-year worth of work so we were hoping for a positive response. Danish audience is demanding and used to quality documentary so of course we were worrying a bit too. I was closely watching the reactions the audience during the premiere and I was stunned. They were reacting emotionally, laughing loudly and even applauding during the screening and everybody stayed for the Q&A after the screening, too. My husband and our children were sitting in the audience so the it was another part of the story in a way, continuing in the cinema. The questions were diverse. Some of them involved our family sugar free way of life, everyday issues, reactions of our wider family and of kindergartens and schools. We discussed the possible solutions and ways of protecting our children and maintaining their freedom at the same time. People also asked how the contemporary sugar lobby and food industry work. The film exposes a crucial crime committed in the 70s that caused the ongoing increase in sugar consumption, so we went through this topic too. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the audience – I saw grandparents, young parents, pregnant women, students, even a group of anarchists from Christiania. They were all very enthusiastic about the topic explored through my personal story, otherwise they wouldn’t have joined me in the cinema lobby to continue the discussion, when we couldn’t have stayed in the cinema hall any longer. I was happy that people visited the third and final screening based on recommendations of people who had already seen the movie.
How difficult was it to fulfill the ambitious plan to shoot the film in English language and get it funded?
It was very hard and one of the main reasons why it took five years to finish the movie. I couldn’t have done it without a bit of madness, stubbornness and a huge support of my family. When I was trying to gather enough money five years ago a lot of people laughed at me. “A film about sugar?” they said, “Why? What is so interesting about it to fill a feature-length documentary? Why don’t you shoot a film about beer then!” “I could have”, I used to say, “but it wouldn’t have revealed so many connections, historical dimensions, political background or influence on every one of us.” SUGAR became one of the biggest international topics not only in the discussions, but also in films, in the news, reports, newspaper and even online chats, which are concerned about its negative effects on health.
The film could have been finished earlier, if it was easier to find enough money. However, maybe it is better that the film is being distributed now, when sugar became a global issue and my film can have a bigger impact and wider response. I wish very much for as many people as possible to see the film.
Your film focuses on the impacts of sugar consumption on human health. What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
The reason I started to shoot this film was my own medical condition. The doctors diagnosed me with gestational diabetes when I was three months pregnant and this was the main reason why I started to explore this topic. There is nothing that would fuel your actions more than worrying about your own child.
The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. One clue led to another, it was like a detective story. Personally, I was surprised by how complex the influence of too much sugar consumption on our body is and how many problems it causes –a metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular and immune diseases, diabetes, cancer, liver problems, brain diseases like ADHD, Alzheimer or even schizophrenia. Today, we can clearly see that it’s not only about bad teeth and being overweight.
One of the characters in my film has been researching for years on how the average sugar consumption influences a fetus in mother’s body. Thes study reports clearly show how the inadequate sugar income disrupts the development of a child, especially of his/her brain, and causes a whole set of diseases. What does “inadequate” mean is surely a subject to further discussion and I believe it it shown clearly in the film.
You scrutinize the sugar consumption on general level too. Where do you think the biggest danger of marketing strategies of the companies that produce food containing sugar lies ?
Yes, sugar doesn’t affect only individual human bodies, it influences the body of the whole global society. Food industry promotes the idea of self-regulation, which means (according to them) they don’t need any special laws and restrictions, because they are aware of the problem and they want to solve it. To prove their point, they fund sport events, pay for the construction of school playgrounds and and set up their own health advisory centers. But at the same time they smuggle their ads to schools and fill vending machines with their products full of sugar. This is a very suitable strategy for them – they look responsible in the public eye and they are getting new potential clients. Nobody is surprised, when we talk about it, that self-regulation really doesn’t work in real life. But we are easily persuaded in everyday life to believe in their ideals. Watch out! Multinational corporations really don’t care and their only goal is to sell as much as possible.
Coca-Cola is just one example of this “self-regulation”. They have officially announced they wouldn’t target children with their advertisement (only in some countries!). But it does not make any difference, because the teenagers have their own pocket money, which makes them the most vulnerable and thus the most suitable target audience, who have money and at the same time are not controlled by the parents’ authority.
Are there any countries that actively try to effectively deal with the risks of high sugar consumption?
For example Denmark, where the movie was premiered, is aware of this problem and is trying to find a solution. Unfortunately their chances are slim fighting against the sugar lobby. They enacted a new “sugar tax” law. But it was repealed when the government had changed. The pressure was too strong. However, one thing does work in Denmark and that is candy tax law. The mentioned sugar tax law concerned almost every product of food industry, because today we can find sugar and its chemical substitutes in almost all goods. I can’t say food, because mostly it is not even food anymore.
One of the characters in the film is the American senator Bill Monning, who had been restlessly trying to pass the law regarding soda and sweetened drinks tax in California for five years. Eventually, he has succeeded recently. The tax money will be used to educate the public about the sugar consumption. He is aware that the solution to this problem lies in changing the system of subsidies in agriculture, public education and varied, affordable range of real food. If we change the subsidy system, the carrot from the local farmer will become cheaper than the imported one . And basic fresh food (whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables) will be cheaper than industry processed goods.