At this year’s Autumn Events, Damon Gameau puts his body to the sugar test.
The entertaining yet sobering That Sugar Film follows Damon Gameau’s masochistic quest to eat the equivalent of 40 teaspoons of sugar a day over two months. 40 teaspoons may sound like a lot, but it’s the average amount consumed by Australian 19-30 year olds. Gameau consumes it via “health food” rather than traditional notions of junk food, and sees concerning results almost immediately.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film? Why acting?
DAMON GAMEAU: In retrospect, a need for validation. Really wanting someone else’s approval when I was younger. I was an insecure, awkward teenager. You do acting because people go, “hey well done,” and you get clapped on stage. They put you in funny clothes and that kind of thing. It was probably for ego reasons I got into it and then I started enjoying it—the craft process, researching roles, and understanding human emotions. I fell in love with it.
BG: And was it a shift going behind the camera?
DG: I always wanted to, but never thought it was something I would ever do. And then I made this Tropfest film in 2010. My girlfriend forced me to enter and I won. It was a strange time for me, evolving personally. I copped so much flak. Most Tropfest winners cop a lot of flak in Australia. The flak I copped was really character building in a lot of ways because it inspired me. If that’s all it is, you cop that much grief, you still get through it. It’s fine. It’s a real inspiration for me to make a bigger one. That’s how That Sugar Film came about.
BG: Do you think that the flak you copped prepared you for That Sugar Film, because a), you put yourself on camera and b), you were walking into an area with a lot of white noise?
DG: People would say you’re a glutton for punishment going into anything in the food space. It’s such a debated, vitriolic area. So that did equip me. I’m not naïve to think sugar will affect people in the same way as me. If it doesn’t, that’s great. If it helps a few people, which it seems to be doing already, that’s all I wanted to do.
BG: I understand you were inspired when you became a father. Did you expect the film to become so big?
DG: I was very naïve starting out. There was no press. There was maybe an article every month about sugar. Now it’s 25 a day. I naïvely thought, “we might be breaking the story. I’ve got a scoop for you world.” As I began to research, saw that a lot of information was being suppressed. I had a hunch that maybe down the track it might come out as a big story, but I certainly didn’t think it would be as well received as it is now.
BG: Your health changed so suddenly. Did you expect it to happen so quickly?
DG: No. Again I was pretty naïve. I thought 30 days wouldn’t be enough, especially as I wasn’t eating junk food. As it turned out, the fatty liver disease happened after 18 days—it was a big turning point for the film. Up until that point, it was very low budget. We didn’t know if we’d have a story, so we didn’t invest much in case there were no results. Once the disease happened, it escalated and I started doing more research and shaping the narrative and presenting it in an accessible way without making it preachy or dogmatic.
BG: Did you ever think during the 60 days that the damage was too much, that you needed to stop?
DG: Once I got the fatty liver disease, the levels on my blood test went up. They started monitoring me more closely, because I could’ve reached a point of no return. We were always aware that we were right on that line, but [went ahead] with the U.S. trip—it was an important part of the film because it’s a global issue. I knew we had to have the section on eating their food and making a comment on the sugar supply there. Seeing all of the experts, the story in Kentucky, I really wanted to do [that]. So we just marched on, and made sure I never got to a point where it was irretrievable.
BG: There’s the stereotype about Americans, but how different is Australia in terms of sugar consumption?
DG: Sadly not that different. The difference is they have high fructose corn syrup as well, which we don’t have here. But the main difference I noticed was just how intertwined their industry is with politics. We have it here, and New Zealand does as well, but the Americans, it’s unbelievable just how much lobbying goes on by the food industry and politicians. It’s so hard for people to get a clear message. Australia, we’re the third biggest sugar exporter in the world, so we have our own version of it. But what has been so wonderful about this whole experience is seeing the power of social media, the power of a crowd. It almost bypasses government advice. It does feel like there are some changes happening in hospitals and schools. People who are screening the film, they don’t have to wait for government, they’re doing it themselves.
BG: How much in terms of tone and focus did the film change once you discovered you had a much bigger story?
DG: The main thing that happened was that notion of searching outside of myself in terms of the impacts it was having. I had done a film years ago called The Tracker (2002, dir: Rolf de Heer) with David Gulpilil. When I finished that film, he invited me up to his hometown for two weeks. I was only 24 and I was blown away by how much Coke everyone was drinking. So I wondered if that was still going on.
I didn’t want to turn it into a downtrodden Aboriginal story, but I found out that this town had taken away Coke. Of course, when I got there, I also saw that they were still really struggling [the government funding had been cut]. That’s one of the scenes I really love in the film. And also the Kentucky scene, which shows the impact. The narrative shows I was learning, [and hopefully] the audience is learning at the same time. I made sure that I filmed my own discoveries, [such as] going to New York and seeing how much money was spent on food science. They were real reactions from me, which the audience has at the same time, and which gives an air of authenticity in terms of a documentary.
My idea from the beginning was to invert the aesthetics of the sugar industry, like a backdoor to the Willy Wonka factory, to see what’s really going on. I always thought that that’d be part of the story, use neon colours, and make it playful and fun. I heard this great Oscar Wilde quote where he said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’ve got to make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”
BG: You also really wanted children to watch it?
DG: That was key. Some of us are already ingrained in our habits, but it’s a matter of getting the message to kids so that it might set them up for their future.
BG: Having said that, one of the most striking scenes was the dentist scene. He was 18. It was harrowing.
DG: What’s scary is that guy [the dentist] goes through four of those a day. He normally does seven, eight year olds. I showed a rough cut of that to a group of dentists in Auckland, asking them, “Is it too much? Is it sensationalised?’ And they urged me to leave it in. I’m glad it’s in there now; the Philip Glass music always helps. It adds a bit more intensity to it. Sometimes I’ll sneak into the cinema during screenings and watch that scene. It’s great after lunch. The squirm factor is pretty high.
BG: It’s interesting because 40 teaspoons sounds like a ridiculous amount of sugar, but you made it seem too easy. Did it seem too easy?
DG: Yeah. Scarily so. The kids’ lunchbox, that was really frightening. People often say, I don’t have sugar in my tea anymore, but where do we begin? I think you really have to outlay what you’re having. That’s the point of the film: we’re not trying to demonise sugar. We’re trying to raise awareness so they understand the playing field. You can have your Tim-Tam or your chocolate at the end of the day, but don’t have your apple juice and your low-fat yoghurt at the same time. Because then you’re going to get into trouble.
BG: I know you’ve had some pushback on your figures, but you show how banal it is to reach 40 teaspoons.
DG: It’s really tough to read that stuff. We took so long to get the details [right]. Because it’s hidden in so many foods, it’s so difficult. We did all this research and talked to people. We found some countries like Canada have an even higher amount. Some parts of England, some kids are having 70 teaspoons a day, so 40 is quite generous.
BG: The idea of anecdote versus evidence, did that debate play out in the reaction?
DG: Of course, and from the scientific community, I understand that. This is my experience. I’m not saying it’s everyone’s. There might be someone out there who watches it and thinks he or she is sensitive too. If it helps that person, great. I’m not saying everyone is affected in the same way.
What’s interesting is that after we made the film, study after study has shown exactly the same symptoms I had. I don’t think there’s one diet that suits us all, and there’ll be millions of people out there who probably can eat much more sugar than I can and be fine. But as I said before, if it helps a few people or gives kids a better start, fantastic. Also, it’s a film. I did a couple of interviews recently and was asked, “Do you think your people are well credentialed enough?” It’s not science. It’s a film. It’s meant to be philosophical, not rigid. People forget that and think, “Is this a lesson on sugar?’ It is a little bit, but I also wanted to pose other questions. Hopefully the satire comes through towards the end when I pose other questions on sugar’s effect on the consciousness, and how it affects us.
BG: You walked into an area with a lot of controversy. Did you expect how vociferous the reaction has been?
DG: That’s been the biggest surprise. Even when I was starting out, I was getting trolled by different people, horrible vindictive stuff. I steeled myself for it, and thought, “here we go.” The first two weeks [after release] were really quiet. Even industry people who had seen it in private screens, they thought it was going to be more Michael Moore, dogmatic stuff, “sugar is evil.” I’m not saying that. You can stick to nine a day if you want to and choose wisely. I’m not out there for a fight. I’m not trying to take down an industry. I’m trying to empower human beings to make their own choices, read labels, and think about what they’re giving their kids. Get the power back instead of taking the word of the food industry. It hasn’t hurt that the World Health Organisation came out and said six teaspoons a day on the day we released. There is now so much science coming out now that wasn’t there when I was getting trolled. I think some of those people realise now there’s something in this. It’s supposed to be an inspiring message. I’m not trying to instil fear into people and make them panic and never eat again.
BG: There were a couple of hopeful things: first, the community in the Northern Territory that did have sudden effects from banning sugary drinks for the time being. And the second thing was how quickly you bounced back.
DG: [After] I returned to my normal diet, there was a big turnaround. No one expected how quickly it happened, especially the fatty liver, all of the internal symptoms turned around. We’ve been given a lot of money to run an outreach campaign from the film, in schools, and we’ve been able to re-employ John Tregenza who started the Mai Wiru Foundation so that we’ve given them money to kick-start the project they were doing. That’s not a government initiative, and they employ people to work in the shops and take people around while they’re doing the shopping. I never dreamed that’s what a film could do. It can generate a discussion and get interest from people who want to help and contribute money. And suddenly it grows into this thing.
BG: Even today the New Zealand government announced anti-obesity measures, after having cut that funding.
DG: It’s worldwide. Someone dies in the world of Type-2 diabetes every six seconds. It virtually didn’t exist 50 years ago. How can we not take action? Kids are getting sicker and sicker. Eventually if people yell loud enough, someone’s going to have to listen. They’ve been trying to delay it inside the industry for so long. There is so much vitriol on social media. People are writing to their MPs. It’s changing. It’s exciting.
BG: Do you feel part of a movement, with the likes of Jamie Oliver and all of those guys, pushing this?
DG: There are millions of people doing it, and I’m just one of those guys. The food bloggers and nutritionists right around New Zealand and Australia—this film only reaffirms what they’ve been saying for years. There’s a real mass collaboration of people moving together. That’s why it’s happening faster. It’s a crowd induced movement, which is infinitely more powerful.
BG: You think long-term there’s a way of dealing with it?
DG: I often say in Q&As: 40 years ago we were having the same chat about tobacco. Look how far we’ve come. It’s going to be clunky and a bit awkward and uncomfortable at first, but we’re headed in the right direction. That scene in the film where we show the Flintstones smoking cigarettes always gets a laugh, but I’m thinking maybe in 20-30 years, we’ll look at elite sportsmen selling Gatorade to kids or the Australian cricketers posing with their buckets of KFC and think that’s a bit weird. We had childhood obesity then. And they’re our cricketers, they’re our heroes, endorsing this stuff. We’ll get to that point.
BG: What’s your plan now?
DG: We’ve only been here two days and the screening was last night, but already today, we have emails from people wanting to do similar things here. Different groups and health organisations want to get it into schools and whatnot. I expect some of that stuff to happen in other places we go to. We’re releasing the film throughout Europe and the States over the next few months.
BG: My final question is how do you feel now?
DG: I’m completely back. I lost 90% of my [gained] weight after two months and the majority of the rest of it in the next two months. I feel like I know too much now. I had some [sugar] the other night, a bit of a Lindt Easter egg chocolate, and normally I have homemade chocolate. I’ve realised I’m sensitive to it. I wish I could handle it better. It was like that when I smoked. I wish I was able to have a cigarette every now and then, but I’m a packet guy. Some people are like that. Same with chocolate. I felt it. It got to me a little bit. It’s not for me, and I’m a better person if I avoid it.