Let’s start with an excerpt from the Web site for “Forks Over Knives”:
Brian Wendel [the producer of “Forks Over Knives”] had a long-time interest in nutrition and health. In the summer of 2008, he read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and realized that the scientific case that a whole foods plant-based diet could prevent—and even reverse—disease was greater than he had ever imagined. This concept deserved a “seat at the table” in the national discussion. Brian decided the most effective way to bring this message to a broad audience was by feature film. … Brian has worked in real estate for almost 15 years, and is a partner in an investment and management firm. FORKS OVER KNIVES is his furst feature film. [Typo added by me.]
Want a seat at this table? Read on.
If a Realtor-produced, openly biased documentary pumping T. Colin Campbell’s low-fat vegan diet sounds like cinematic gold to you, there’s a shot you’ll like “Forks Over Knives”. Maybe. For me, it was a tedious slog through a series of softball interviews with the usual gang of oil-eschewing meat critics, cheap scare mongering and miraculous (mostly short-term) medical case-studies with only a few whimpers from the opposition.
But that’s me. Full disclosure: I am not the target audience for this film. I have a blog called “Let Them Eat Meat.” This movie could well have been called “For the Love of G-d, Don’t Let Them Eat Meat.” Who am I trying to kid? There was no way for me to like “Forks Over Knives”. Still, I was hoping the movie would rile me up, but it didn’t even manage to irritate me. It weirdly pains me to say this, but “Forks Over Knives” is an utter bore.
I went to the November 11 screening in Los Angeles, sponsored by Whole Foods because of CEO John Mackey’s own belief in the truth of low-fat veganism. Whole Foods was kind enough to cater a pre-screening buffet of kale, squash and quinoa. This proved to be the most thrilling aspect of the evening, if that tells you something. If free quinoa gets your pulse pounding, it might not.
The host of this plant-strong evening was Rip Esselstyn, the fish-eating author of The Engine 2 Diet and son of Caldwell Esselstyn, the low-fat veganism promoting doctor who is one of the film’s central interview subjects. The excitement over the kale buffet was a clue, but the ease with which Rip hyped up the audience further clarified that this screening was very much for the choir.
"Do you feel like we are going to spread the message of a plant-strong vegan diet?" he asked us. "Yeah!" we cheered. "Will ‘Forks Over Knives’ be instrumental in this?!" he asked us. "Yeah!" we cheered again. Remember, this is before the movie even started. There may have been some wishful thinking going on here.
The film opens with a montage of sensationalist TV journalists name-dropping horrible diseases with almost no context. (You can see a good chunk of this opening montage in the “Forks Over Knives” trailer.) So right away we’re good and terrified and desperately seeking answers. Fortunately, “Forks Over Knives” has them.
"Heart disease. Osteoperosis. Arteriosclerosis. Cancer. Autoimmune disease. Diabetes. Um, what else? Fibromyalgia? Sure, why not? Fibromyalgia.”
There are two rough narrative ideas limping through the film. Because the most popular documentaries always include the film’s director as a character, the movie opens with filmmaker Lee Fulkerson — whose stated vices are Red Bulls and soda — going to vegan doctors Matthew Lederman and Alona Pulde to discover that his daily Red Bulls have not contributed to a rosy picture of health. Lederman and Pulde tell him that he is at risk of a heart attack. Time for Fulkerson to give up all animal products and refined foods.
This becomes the bookend for the movie, with the conclusion being that Fulkerson gets his numbers checked after a few months as a Red Bull-free vegan and finds that every single health marker has wildly improved. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it!” he exclaims when he hears how drastically his cholesterol has dropped. Yeah, right, dude. That was totally take three.
"The bad news is that your health is fucked and only veganism can cure it. The good news is that now you get to be a character in your movie.”
The other hinted at but not fully developed story covers the work of Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. The premise here is that these two were doing research simultaneously, but separately and in different fields of study, yet came to the same low-fat vegan conclusion around the same time. The movie implies that this means they are right: if two people can develop a conclusion independently, though different methods, it has to be true.
This image probably makes more sense in the movie.
They add a dash of “one man fighting the greedy and misguided establishment” to Campbell’s half of the narrative, but they don’t flesh this out enough for us to buy it, and what little they do say about Campbell not being taken seriously backfires.
The narrator says that Campbell’s colleagues at Cornell shun him, don’t agree with his research and that Campbell has had classes canceled because of this. There is not much explanation of exactly what happened, and the only defense of Campbell the movie gives is that some people think this was an injustice. This is supposed to get us shouting, “The truth is being shut out!” But for a general audience that does not already have a stake in this debate, the more likely reaction is, “Oh, okay, so this Campbell guy is a crank that nobody legit believes.”
Another problem is that The China Study doesn’t translate well to the big screen. There are a lot of charts in the film, which makes it seem informative-ish, but if I didn’t already know a few things about The China Study, the movie would have left me hard-pressed to explain what Campbell discovered and why it meant that all animal products were unhealthy. But maybe I was nodding off.
Junshi Chen holds a copy of Diet, Life-Style and Mortality in Rural China, which he worked on with Campbell. No one knows what book Campbell is holding, but judging by its lack of a cover image, it must be dense and authoritative. Their placement of the books might have something to do with one of the purported health benefits of low-fat veganism discussed in “Forks Over Knives”.
The film documents a handful of success stories of people who followed the low-fat vegan plan and saw almost immediate improvements. In one of the film’s few humorous moments, an older gentlemen credits low-fat veganism for his still-functioning penis. Well that’s cool. These stories are certainly more inspiring than spending a day clicking around low-fat vegan Dr. John McDougall’s message board and reading complaints from McDougallers with chronic fatigue, bloating and dizziness. (Diss.)
"Don’t bother with B12 supplements until you’ve been vegan for at least three years. And even then it’s probably an unnecessary precaution."
But the most effective portion of the film would have to be the shots of coronary artery bypass surgery. The creators of “Forks Over Knives” are so proud of these scare scenes, they’ve included stills on their site.
You sure that steak is worth it?
The gasps of horror during these scenes suggested a couple of things. One is that eww, we hate to see our insides exposed. The other is that the film had finally managed to shock us into potentially accepting its message: “Heart disease is correlated with animal products, and heart surgery is gross. Are you vegan yet?”
Veg News commented on these shots in its "Forks Over Knives" feature: “The visual illustration of how easily so many diet-related diseases can be reversed is more powerful than any words on paper, especially when juxtaposed with the alternative; there’s a particularly cringe-worthy shot of open-heart surgery that should scare any meat-lover away from a steak.”
The association would be easier to make if they had found a piece of poorly-masticated rib eye lodged in the heart, but anyone following the film up to this point will grasp that animal products are responsible for almost all health problems (70-80 percent of all health care costs, as Campbell says in the trailer). A meat eater with the patience to make it to this point might indeed be persuaded to give peas a chance.
However, my guess is that few meat eaters will even start to watch this. I’m no Morgan Spurlock fan, but at least “Super Size Me” had a gimmick. What is the hook in “Forks Over Knives”? “Come see charts about how much your diet sucks”? Would the average American rather get lectured about avoiding oils or would they prefer to see Bruce Willis kill an evil foreigner? Somebody should have told poor Wendel that he was dumping all his real estate profits into a well-intentioned flop. Wendel says he wants “Forks Over Knives” to get the low-fat vegan message out to the masses. So why did he aim his film at people who cheer every time Neal Barnard comes on the screen?
Whoo! Hell yeah!
Even for the corpse munchers who do get suckered into sitting through this with their vegan significant others, “Forks Over Knives” is too open about its agenda to be very convincing. You know you’re watching an advertisement and not a real film when it opens with an advisory to check with your doctor before making any nutritional or medical changes, and then it ends with a link to plantbaseddiet.com.
Worse, this isn’t even a movie that all vegans can get behind. Vegans who don’t agree with the vegan health argument, or don’t care much about it, will be disappointed that talk of the ethical or environmental reasons for veganism is almost totally absent.
Even vegans who do care about health might object to the focus on low-fat veganism, which vegan dietitians such as Jack Norris and Virginia Messina say is unnecessary, detrimental for some, and can turn people off to veganism with its restrictiveness. Then there will be vegans who already agree with everything in this movie, but can’t be bothered to see a movie telling them what they already know.
“Forks Over Knives” is directed at a niche of a niche of a niche: vegans who follow a low-fat diet and like to be reminded why they do this. It will not inspire the revolution that Wendel bet so much money on.
Something bad is happening due to animal products.
There are two voices of dissent in the film. Neither are persuasive, but one of the choices was a total misfire for the filmmakers. For some reason they chose Connie B. Diekman, a former president of The American Dietetic Association, to be their main anti-vegan. Vegans will hate this. “The conservative ADA” is supposed to adore veganism. How could someone from the ADA be the villain in a pro-vegan movie? The ADA says veganism is suitable for all stages of the life cycle!
Well, that is what the ADA’s vegetarian position papers say (although if you read the details, they’re actually not that positive on veganism), but those papers are written and reviewed by the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, a club for all the ethical and religious vegetarians and vegans at the ADA. Inadvertantly, “Forks Over Knives” provides more proof that the ADA on the whole doesn’t really support veganism, but instead allows the Vegetarian Dietary Practice Group to have their little position paper in favor of a vegetarian diet, even though it contradicts many of the ADA’s other position papers.
Diekman satisfies the role of tame and dismissible counterpoint, but making a former ADA president the main anti-vegan won’t help vegans who like to lean on the ADA’s vegetarian position papers in health arguments.
The lesson here: don’t eat a diet primarily composed of isolated casein.
The other voice of insanity against low-fat veganism in the film is David Klurfeld of the USDA. He gets to make the only near-interesting point in the entire film, which is that financial ties to industry are not the only source of bias — having a life and career based on promoting vegetarianism could also skew research (*ahem*Campbell*cough cough*).
We cut straight to Campbell, who dispatches that concern by explaining that he used to be biased… in favor of meat and dairy (he grew up on a dairy farm, in case you haven’t heard). But he gave up that bias when his research showed him that dairy, specifically casein, wasn’t the perfect food he once thought it was. He has been on an unbiased quest for truth ever since. So why does it sound so suspicious when the narrator comments on Campbell’s pro-vegan conclusions in The China Study and raves, “The results were remarkably consistent with Campbell’s previous research”?
"Heart disease is an absolutely toothless paper tiger that need never ever exist. Brain fog, though — now that shit’s inevitable.”
After the screening, there was a panel discussion with some of the film’s major players. Rip Esselstyn started it off. “What are your favorite meals?” he asked the panel. “Sorry for putting you all on the spot,” he added, apologizing for that hardball.
"Bacon and eggs," director Fulkerson joked. (Laughter) Bacon and eggs are fatty and evil, of course that wouldn’t be his favorite breakfast. “Just kidding,” he assured us. “My favorite breakfast would have to be Dr. John McDougall’s Tunisian Vegetable Stew.” (No laughter) Apparently I was the only one who got that joke.
Terry Mason M.D., Commissioner of the Department of Public Health in Chicago, said he loved Indian food because of the spices, and that his favorite Indian dish was a chickpea dish, but he couldn’t remember the name. “Chana masala!” someone shouted. But Mason didn’t hear and described it in more detail, the name still eluding him. “Chana masala!” yelled a voice from the back. “What? What is it called?” Mason asked. "Chana masala!" a few people yelled at once. "Oh that’s right, chana masala," he said. I felt like yelling “It’s called shiro!” just to hear someone shout, “No, that’s Ethiopian!”
Eventually questions were opened to the audience. The first question was not a question at all, but a thank you to the film participants for the work they were doing on behalf of humanity. (Not for the animals? Oh right, this is the health crowd.) The second question was from a man who was confused that Whole Foods would sponsor this screening when every time he goes into Whole Foods, he sees so much meat and dairy.
Fortunately, Terry Mason took it upon himself to make the conversation interesting.
"We’re all adults here?" Mason asked. "Yes," we said. "Good. Then we can talk about clitoral engorgement. The clitoris is a regressed penis," he explained, and then somewhere a homophobe shot himself. In the same way that low-fat veganism can improve penile function, Mason said, it increases blood flow to the clitoris, curing anorgasmia.
Rock on, Mason.
"Forks Over Knives" comes out on March 11, 2011. Don’t miss it.