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Super Size Me and The Corporation attract controversy at Sundance


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 20 January 2004

There's nothing like controversy to get you in the public eye. Hacks gobble it up. We all gobble it up. Especially when it strikes close to home.

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has been serving it up with relish in his documentary Super Size Me at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

For the Michael Moore-ish (it even sounds like Moore's book Downsize This) investigation into America's obsession with fast-food he ate McDonalds, accepting super sizes if offered, for a whole month to see what it would do to him.

"Morgan Spurlock took the fasttrack to becoming an obese American," is one of the taglines you find on the fast-food themed website. And "Super Size Me: a film of epic portions."

In the film, Spurlock, who ignored his doctor's advice against doing the month-long stunt, takes a medical examination before and after. Spurlock says he put on 25 pounds (although he has since lost it) and ended up with a liver so punished that it resembled an alcoholic's.

It remains to be seen whether the film, which just premiered at Sundance this past Saturday will follow anything like the meteoric trajectory of Bowling For Columbine, but the signs are good.

The film has created great buzz - interest from across the media, television and radio interviews, advance seat sell-outs, queues for rush tickets.

A stream of glowing reviews and a great distribution deal would cap a rollicking Sundance festival.

But is it too controversial?

There doesn't appear to have been much legal outcry from McDonald's thus far - that may be because after recent debacles and lengthy legal battles with the likes of the McLibel Two, McDonald's resembles an elephant running away from a mouse.

There is also the issue of whether the large distributors, whose mother companies have fingers in other pies, will be afraid to piss off a major advertiser. I haven't seen the film so I can't say just how far it goes. But when you see the culture-jamming modus operandi of the Super Size Me crew - for instance, the Ronald McDonald clown has been redrawn with obese proportions - you get a pretty good idea of what to expect.

After Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine became the biggest grossing documentary of all time, distributor interest will not be put off easily. Gimmick movies, which this is to some extent, can do surprisingly well and with McDonalds-bashing now an international pastime there is a ready market. In truth, Super Size Me doesn't sound too controversial for distributors, it has just the right kind of controversy that gets a little film oodles of free publicity.

The Corporation, another documentary that has been creating buzz in Sundance, also courts controversy.

The Corporation not only condemns the record of a slew of corporate giants, but uses their own advertising to do so. Director Mark Achbar recorded advertisements and news footage from satellite to DV and then cut it into the film. Although it sails close to the wind, under the "fair use" terms of copyright law this is allowable, since it offers a critical analysis of said footage.

The Corporation is fortunate in that it has a lawyer on the board in Joel Bakan, law professor and author of the script. They know just how far they can push the bounds. The film also offers a well-reasoned and powerful critique of the corporation as a structure itself, rather than one particular organisation.

At the film's World Premiere in Vancouver, Bakan was positively energised by the idea of receiving some slap suits, so he could slap back with his own. It would also provide material for the sequel, he said.

He was joking, sort of, but the point was serious. When it comes to publicity, there's nothing like a flurry of controversy to get you noticed among the panoply of festival films.

For a drole insider's take on the goings-on at the Sundance festival, which opened on Thursday 15 and runs until Sunday 25 January, check out Morgan Spurlock's diary and photographs . The Corporation web site is at Corporation.tv. My review is below.

Read more Making It columns.

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