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Filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig has some bad news, and she isn't about to deliver it with a spoonful of sugar. Her hard-hitting Sundance documentary "Fed Up" exposes a growing epidemic of childhood obesity and takes aim at the powerful special interests in the food industry and federal government that are making it worse.
Paired with respected news anchor Katie Couric and award-winning producer Laurie David ("An Inconvenient Truth") the filmmakers travel from the halls of Washington, D.C., to school cafeterias and home kitchens where overweight children and their families are struggling to live healthier lifestyles.
Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper introduced the film at its world premiere on Sunday in Park City, describing the filmmakers as "brave and diligent" and adding, "I guarantee you will be different after you see this film."
"Fed Up" wastes no time getting to the point. In the United States, one in five children are overweight and that rate is climbing. Worldwide, more people die from obesity than starvation. Statistics saturate the screen, all pointing to a massive failure to avert a major health-care crisis.
Couric, who is passionate about the issue and co-produced the film, says people are misinformed about why they are getting fatter and how to lose weight. Turning its spotlight on the multi-billion-dollar 'reduced fat' food and fitness industries, "Fed Up" says they are exacerbating the problem. "What if we are actually making things worse," Couric asks.
According to the filmmakers' research, fat isn't the culprit, it's sugar, and the food industry has been doing its best to cover that up.
Fifteen-year-old Brady Kluge is one of the epidemic's victims. At 215 pounds, he feels the social stigma of being obese and says sadly, "I feel like I will always be overweight I'm failing."
Soechtig gave pocket-sized Flip cameras to six young teens and asked them to keep personal diaries of their efforts to lose weight. She said the footage was intended for background research but was so compelling she used it in the film.
"You can't not love them," she said in an interview before the festival. "They changed how I saw obesity. I had bought into the theory they are lazy, didn't have will power. I found they are anything but. Their struggles are interwoven into the history of the epidemic."
The scenes filmed by the children are heart wrenching and make the film's call to action all the more urgent.
According to Soechtig, the kids are doing everything they can to improve their health, but they don't have the right information and everywhere they turn they are faced with bad options - sugar-laden beverages and processed food, especially at school.
In meticulous detail, the filmmakers chronicle the history of America's school lunch program. What began as an innocuous program to ensure kids did not go hungry is now wielded as a marketing tool by corporate giants who are more interested in getting children hooked on their products than good nutrition, they say.
The filmmakers also show how the food industry has pressured the federal government to loosen its dietary guidelines. As a result, the incidence of Type 2 diabetes and various food-related cancers are on the rise.
Toward its conclusion, the filmmakers draw a strong parallel between nicotine and sugar addictions and suggest that public pressure can force social and regulatory changes. Citing the efforts to improve labeling and restrict advertising of cigarettes and the resulting drop in lung cancer rates, they believe that is the only way change will come about in the food industry.
"You need to vote with your forks and your ballots," Soechtig told a fired-up audience at the premiere.
"Fed Up" screens in the Sundance Film Festival U.S. Documentary Competition at the following times and locations:
- Wednesday, Jan. 22 9:30 p.m. at the Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
- Thursday, Jan. 23 at noon at the Temple Theatre, Park City
- Saturday, Jan. 25 9 a.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City
Rockport Estates resident Mike Gray and a small group of fellow evacuees perch on a hill top in Brown's Canyon overlooking their scorched neighborhood.
"We are living in uncertainty," he said after a roller coaster day of relief and renewed anxiety.
Gray, a homebuilder who has lived in Rockport Estates for 15 years, is grateful that he and his wife Wendy, and their dog are safe. But as the Rockport fire reignited and turned 180 degrees back toward his property on Wednesday afternoon, he fears the worst may be yet to come.
After spending a second night with friends in Wanship, Gray said he regrets not having grabbed more of his belongings when he was allowed, briefly, to return Wednesday morning. At that point, he said, it looked like firefighters had gained the upper hand.
"I feel kind of silly, I didn't grab my computer, titles to my cars .," he said in retrospect. But at that point, Gray and others were optimistic. "The big thing is you go in all happy thinking my house is safe, then the next day the fire makes a pass all the way around the mountain and comes back," he said.
He knows others have not been as lucky. Like other evacuees, Gray has been driving back and forth between vantage points in Browns Canyon and Wanship to try to keep and eye on their properties through the billowing smoke.
"We run into our neighbors everywhere and one, she lost her house and her face looked so sad," he said.
As of Thursday morning, Summit County Emergency manager Kevin Callahan said the size of the fire was estimated to be 1,940 acres and was 25 percent contained. The goal, he said, was to reach 50 percent containment on Thursday. But that, he acknowledged is dependent on the weather, especially wind and heat.
Callahan estimated that approximately 150 people had been displaced and while the evacuation orders are still in place for Rockport Estates, Bridge Hollow and Promontory, he said, they hoped be able to allow residents in those sectors that have been deemed safe, to retrieve some additional belongings.
In the meantime, he added, the Red Cross shelters at the North Summit Middle School in Coalville and at the LDS meetinghouse in Trailside are offering assistance to evacuees.
At last count, the Red Cross said it had sheltered one person overnight, and was serving a steady stream of snacks, water and meals. According to a press release, the Red Cross has also partnered with several organizations to take in the evacuees' pets and other animals.
Callahan added the county is working to set up a multi-agency resource center to connect those who have been affected with other emergency resources.
Prior to its debut Friday, details about The Sundance film "Escape From Tomorrow" were under wraps. Even the film's publicist was mum about the plot. "Just make sure you see it," he said.
The film was so hush-hush that there was even a smattering of empty seats at its first screening in the Sundance Film Festival's off-off mainstream NEXT category, even though Sundance Film Festival Programming Director Trevor Groth had repeatedly highlighted it during pre-festival press interviews.
But with some L.A. film critics already referring to "Escape From Tomorrow" as a "cult hit," it is doubtful there will be any spare tickets for the rest of the week.
"Escape" is a terrifying misadventure filmed, for the most part "guerilla-style" (according to director Randy Moore) at a world-famous theme park that shall remain unnamed in this review -- in the hopes that by staying under Google's radar, the park's lawyers won't file an injunction before the festival is over.
Let's just say that watching Moore's noir tale is like being super-glued to your seat while getting poked in the eye. It is both fascinating and repelling.
Shot in black and white and painstakingly rendered onto 35mm film, "Escape" sinks its hook even before the first title frame.
But there is something spooky going on as a seemingly typical family plunges on a roller coaster through a strangely familiar landscape: complete with mouse-ears, a magic castle, princesses and a giant metallic globe-shaped pavilion. Yep, that park.
As the story begins, the family is setting out to make the most of their last day of vacation. Before they leave the hotel, though, the dad, played by Roy Abramsohn, takes a phone call from his office and learns that he has been fired. He decides not to share the information with his wife so they can, hopefully, enjoy one last carefree day. In the meantime, his subtly demonic son intentionally locks him out of the room.
Dad's day deteriorates from there and the gap between the park's artificial gaiety and his despair widens.
As the hours wear on, tensions mount in an uncomfortably familiar way. Mom and dad begin to crack under the pressure of trying to have a perfect day, the kids are over-stimulated the lines for the rides are long, other tourists are getting pushy and even the princesses seem hostile.
By midday, Dad's depression is morphing into madness, his son's hostility is becoming more overt, his wife's psyche begins to fray and his daughter wanders out of sight.
There is also an overlay of dangerous sexual tension as dad becomes infatuated with a pair of long-legged, vampy teenager girls.
The audience watches as Dad's emotional seams begin to split, the park's attractions turn into a twisted funhouse and the princesses become middle-aged tramps.
In the Q&A following the premiere, Moore, who both wrote and directed the film, admitted that his memories of visiting the park during his own childhood were fraught with conflicting emotions. "And, obviously I have a lot of father issues," he added.
Several incredulous fellow filmmakers in the audience asked Moore how he pulled off shooting the scenes inside the park. It wasn't easy, he explained describing a complex system of shooting and recording on small handheld devices.
No doubt he and a number of Sundance staffers are now waiting uneasily to see how that news goes down in the magic kingdom. "Escape From Tomorrow" screens:
Summit County straddles a major crude-oil transportation route that is going to get busier.
At one end are the Uintah Basin oil fields and, at the other, a daisy chain of refineries north of Salt Lake City.
According to Utah State Senator Kevin VanTassell (R-Vernal), who hails from the heart of Utah's oil country, major producers like the Newfield Exploration Company are expanding their drilling operations and the refineries in Salt Lake City are planning commensurate expansions to keep up with the expected increase in deliveries.
That's good news for Utah's economy, says VanTassell, whose senate district includes Daggett, Duchesne, Summit, Uintah, Wasatch counties, but it also presents some serious transportation concerns.
"If production rises to 40,000 barrels a day, that's 130 trucks or more in a 24-hour period," he said. According to VanTassell, within three to four years, increases in oil production will dramatically increase the number two oil tankers traveling along US 40 from Vernal to the Silver Creek interchange and westward on I80 into Salt Lake City.
Van Tassell isn't complaining. He is a vocal proponent of mineral resource development, but he also believes in being proactive.
"My guess is it will be a gradual increase and we have a little time to get some public input," he said.
To that end, VanTassell, who chairs the Utah Legislature's Interim Transportation Committee, has introduced a proposal to study the potential impact of an increase in tanker traffic on US 40, particularly as it passes through Uintah, Duchesne and Wasatch counties, where the highway encounters steep grades, two-lane sections and cross traffic. Of particular concern to Wasatch County is the fact that US 40 does double duty as Heber's Main Street.
Van Tassell wants the study to look at every possible alternative, including expanding parts of the existing highway, moving the oil by rail, and possibly refining the sludge-like crude oil in the Basin so that it can be piped instead of needing to be transported via insulated tanker trucks.
"The timeline is to try to get the preliminary study completed in March by the end of the legislative session," he said.
So far, though, Summit County has not been in on the discussions.
Jason Davis, Utah Department of Transportation's director of Region 2, which includes Summit County, said the tanker traffic would not have a significant impact here. "Right now we definitely have the capacity to handle increased load safely and efficiently on US 40 and I-80 (in Summit County). According to Davis, with two lanes of traffic in both directions on the Summit County section of US 40, and up to six lanes on I-80, "nobody would notice" the additional tankers.
When asked if there would be concerns about more truck traffic on the flyover from US 40 to westbound I80, Davis said UDOT is considering adding de-icing equipment to mitigate winter driving on the flyover but added that was "not in response to the truck traffic."
Keith Schmidt, senior communication coordinator for Newfield, said the company is aware of the transportation challenges and emphasized that the "growth of the field will be gradual, as will the increase in transport trucks." He confirmed that a study could look at transporting the oil by rail or pipeline but that it is "premature to go into detail."
According to Schmidt, the Basin's oil, known as black wax or yellow wax, is in great demand, but, due to its high paraffin content, which congeals into solid state at room temperature, is hard to move through a pipeline, necessitating the specially insulated tanker trucks that are anticipated to roll through Summit County at a steadily increasing pace.
Newfield is already transporting about 25,000 barrels of oil per day, which translates into 90-100 trucks a day. Schmidt said the trucks run 24/7, which reduces congestion. In an email this week he explained: "Our ramp up will be gradual, increasing over the next few years to 40,000 barrels of oil per day. The trucking would increase to approximately 140-150 trucks a day over a 24-hour period at that level of production."
Cory Pope, director of systems planning for UDOT, said the study, which is jointly funded by local counties, business groups and UDOT, is still just getting off the ground and has primarily involved local officials from Uintah County, Duchesne County, and The Uintah Transportation Special Service District. But, he said, there will be opportunities for Summit County to get involved in the process if the study moves forward.
In the meantime, Kraig Powell (R-Heber City) who represents both Summit and Wasatch counties in the state Legislature sees the trucks passing by on a daily basis. "My office on Heber's Main Street sits 12 feet away from the highway. We joke tongue in cheek that we live on an oil line that is sometimes interrupted by passenger vehicles."
Powell disagrees with Davis's comment that people won't notice the increase in tanker trucks through Summit County. "Everyone in Summit and Wasatch counties will notice those kinds of numbers," he said, adding that there are concerns about driver safety with the higher volume of larger vehicles.
Like VanTassell, Powell also serves on the interim transportation committee. "I am going to make sure local government officials are involved in every aspect of this study," he said.
" It seems that technology is really liberating to a lot of filmmakers and people who might not even consider themselves filmmakers to begin with have been inspired just to go out and tell stories visually through digital technology."
---Shorts programmer Kim Yutani
Like short stories, short films are an art form unto themselves and are treated as such by Sundance. One who especially appreciates that is Kim Yutani who came to the organization in 2007 as a "shorts" specialist. These days, as one of the Sundance Film Festival's longtime programmers, Yutani in addition to helping to selects films the feature category, concentrates her efforts on compiling the slate of short films.
By definition, she says, a 'short' is any project with a screening time of less than a minute or up to 45 minutes. This year's shortest project, "Don't Hug Me I'm Scared," has a run time of just over three minutes and the longest, "The Movement: One Man Joins an Uprising" lasts 40 minutes.
But don't even think of brushing Sundance's shorts off as trivial. Though brief, many will leave a lasting impression.
One of this year's entries, "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" directed by Lucy Walker will leave audiences breathless. The 39-minute U.S.-made documentary transports viewers to a hilltop overlooking a village as it is consumed by last year's post-earthquake tsunami in Japan. Without narration other than the survivors' own words the filmmaker captures their desperation and perseverance with stunningly edited images.
"For me short films are interesting because you see such a range," says Yutani adding, "There is something liberating about telling a story in a short amount of time."
She also believes that those who make short films represent the true independent spirit that Sundance celebrates. "I don't think short filmmakers have selling in mind and it shows," she explained.
"One of unique things about shorts is that you have fewer limitations. Because of the technology and how affordable it is, people are really experimenting with the short form. It seems that technology is really liberating to a lot of filmmakers and people who might not even consider themselves filmmakers to begin with have been inspired just to go out and tell stories visually through digital technology," she added.
That may explain why, this year, the festival received a record number of entries in the shorts category, 7,675. Staffers whittled the field down to 350 and then Yutani joined the effort to further narrow the field to 64 which will be screened in seven batches including a documentary and an animation spotlight.
Like their feature-length counterparts, the shorts are divided into categories - U.S. and World, Dramatic and Documentary. The Shorts Programs (I though V) each contain a mix of all four categories. However, Yutani notes, Shorts Program I contains more of the lighter fare, while Program V, she warns, veers toward darker subjects.
Some highlights according to Yutani include: "The Return" a rare entry from Kosovo, an extraordinary Polish film called "Frozen Stories" and "Killing the Chickens" which she refers to as "a stunning, artfully made epic from Sweden."
Yutani is also excited about the films in the Animation Spotlight which, she says, provide a fascinating overview of different styles and techniques including two hand-drawn entries "Avocados" and "The Night Hunter."
On another note, Yutani mentioned that this year's Shorts Program is presented by Yahoo! and as part of the collaboration, many of the entries will be available on Yahoo!Screen, a video portal launched last October by Yahoo!. On that site viewers will be able to vote for their favorites and an audience award will be announced at the end of the festival.
Also, as befitting their 'liberated' spirit, Sundance will hold a separate and unique celebration for the shorts program award announcements. It will be held at Jupiter Bowl at NewPark on Jan. 24.
Finally, according to local buzz, one or two of this year's shorts contenders may also be in the running for an Oscar. Sundance attendees will be among only a handful of film fans to have seen them when those nominations are announced Tuesday, Jan. 24.