Square Eye Express – New Free-To-Air Documentaries

A few upcoming TV docos peel back the layers of modern existence and modern culture.

Questions surrounding the sustainability of modern existence are perhaps the most common theme in contemporary documentary making. The Food Factory series which is scheduled to kick-off on SBS One tonight (July 11) takes a squizz at just what it takes to produce various forms of packaged foods. While it doesn’t perhaps take a political line of sustainability issues, the series implies, subtly and perhaps unwittingly, that modern food processing is really just a clever act of removing food from food and calling it food.

Overtly, however, it’s about being clever more than about nutrition, and more about quantity than quality. It sounds like it might be a yawn, but the production values take their cue from Myth Busters, with a kind of gee-whizz excitement at the thrill of life and a child-like awe at making things that go bang and make a mess and make the camera shudder and the host giggle. The science, bleached of any political colouration as it is, is interesting nevertheless.

In the first program of the series, dried tomato soup, orange cordial and sea salt are put held up to the bright lights of investigation. The odd conceit of getting B-grade British celebs to try and manufacture these products on various jerry-built contraptions gets a little tedious, but the insights into just how close these foods come to being obliterated in the process of becoming packaged are a little troubling.

The emphasis on the gung-ho aspect detracts from the more interesting aspects – such as the providence of some of the ingredients used and their footprint – which are ignored in favour of a “gee isn’t science great and aren’t we clever” kind of frippery. I watched this while doing something else, as an occasional heads-up background, which seems about right.

In Truth to Tell‘s quest to find useful knowledge from documentary formats, it ranks ok. Just.

No Impact Man is ABC2’s Sunday Best offering for this Sunday (July 14). Here we follow a year in the life of Colin Beavan, the man of the title, who vows to leave zero footprint on the earth for one year. The fact he lives in New York, works, has a wife and young child, makes this quest extremely difficult, if not superfluous and counter-intuitive, but adds the effort a degree of relevance for most of us.

Less scientific and information-laden than you might expect, this film ends up becoming more about the personal struggle rather than saving the world. Colin’s less than enthusiastic wife and his own questioning move his and his family’s efforts away from the global and focus on the personal. While the intent to bring sustainability home clearly drives the movie, this intimate study surprises in its emphasis on heart more than mind, even if it wanders into Reality TV territory occasionally.

The early stages of the No Impact period are rule-laden and uncomfortable, driven by Colin’s seemingly gentle but firm obsession with his project. His wife Michelle struggles but comes to open to the No Impact concept. The family is criticised even by greenies for giving sustainability a weirdo factor it doesn’t exactly need. There’s certainly something to the criticisms in that the whole thing becomes something of an oddity or an individual challenge – like swimming from Florida to Cuba – and less a statement on sustainability. The moniker of No Impact Man ends up becoming a cartoonish caricature and the line of ‘No’s’ the year of no impact entails look like a kind of torture than a liberation.

Holes in the project, such as the fact that the family still uses a computer (by which he produced a blog and a book and an on-going project. The former of which had its last entry in November last year), an oven, mass produced products like bikes, recycled things which require someone, somewhere to buy new stuff and the irony of Michelle working as a journalist with the magazine Business Week are not lost, nor are they ignored.

However, the personal angle leads to a deeper conclusion. As Colin says himself, the future of sustainability is built on the strength of personal networks and relationships. As such, the tensions and wobbles between Colin and Michelle act as pointers to a larger concept: that sustainability is not so much about setting rules as about building and maintaining equal and mutually respectful relationships. Without this all the sustainability rules or sacrifices in the world won’t work. Moreover, any approach to sustainable living is an issue that is not just about politics and sacrifice but about testing the limits of one’s personal values in relation to those around.

Finally, series 5 of The True Story, starting on ABC2 on July 27, takes us behind the scenes of popular culture to find what is purported to be the reality. In the episode I saw, Oliver Stone’s Platoon is put on the slab and its veracity and its connection to reality are under the scalpel. Stone’s first movie was based on his real-life experiences as young grunt in Vietnam and Platoon and is considered one of the most realistic Vietnam war movies. This appears to justify such as examination.

What emerges is that Platoon was perhaps more of a model for the 2008 Hollywood spoof Tropic Thunder than I thought with actors wandering about in the jungle in a kind of two-week long game of Skirmish, a Vet advisor acting like Patton and an OCD approach to gritty realism. In parts, this ends up being a documentary on the war itself, with Platoon acting like a loose narrative thread dangling somewhere off to the side. The device of Platoon is clever as it adds a new twist on the usual ‘Nam story, but it tends to hollow out and falter nevertheless.

Once again, the ubiquitous Boy’s Own stylistic influence of Myth Busters is evident, even if the tone is more sombre.

The faint connection to the subject underlines a possible weakness in the concept. The selection of subject matter is crucial as the popular culture shine can’t last throughout the entire program. Also, it’s important for the viewer to have not only some interest in the topic, but a pretty close understanding and interest in the popular culture vehicle being looked at. For instance, my preview DVD also had a episode on Star Trek and, not having any interest, why would I watch it?

As such, this series looks likely to be a little hit and miss.


Title: Food Factory
How to Catch it – SBS One, weekly  from July 11
Couch Time – 30 Mins.
High Point – Home science made accessible
Low Point – Grating talent and cheesy host

Title: No Impact Man
How to Catch it – ABC2, July 14
Couch Time – 120 Mins.
High Point – Layered narrative on values and sustainability
Low Point – Can be too personal and lose focus

Title: The True Story
How to Catch it – ABC2 from July 27
Couch Time – 50 Mins.
High Point – Interesting if the topic is right
Low Point – Flimsy concept





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