Until 2014, Damon Gameau was primarily known for being an actor. Today, the Australian is known for far more than that – he is making us fundamentally rethink our food choices. As writer, producer, director and lead of our film of the month, THAT SUGAR FILM, he embarked on a journey to discover the sugary truth about foods marketed and commonly perceived as ‘healthy’. For two months, he would eat 40 teaspoons (160 grams) of sugar each day – the average amount a young, Australian male consumes. Yet, you won’t see him indulging in soft drinks and ice-cream but rather low-fat yoghurts and juice, groceries we consume in pursuit of a better health that hide their sugar-sweet-selfs behind the façade of do-gooders. Filmed as Damon was about to become a father, he decided it is about time to lift the veil on hidden sugar. So, for all of us victims numbed by sweet substances, let’s tune in and listen to his wake-up call.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” I actually think the world needs documentaries more than ever. They have become a wonderful form of modern journalism and can shine a light into our darkest corners.
That Sugar Film is your debut as a documentary director. What sparked your interest for becoming a human lab rat and at what point did you decide to make a film?
I was aware of the mixed messages around sugar in the public opinion. The camps were very divided so I wanted to find out some truths for myself. I always thought telling a story about sugar would also lend itself to some great aesthetics. A colorful Willy Wonka joyride.
You were the director while still having the lead role in the film. This is rather an exemption to the rule. Could you tell us a little about how you experienced it?
I certainly learnt a lot about myself doing it this way. My barometer is very finely tuned now for when I am truthful and when I am bullshitting. I have been an actor for 12 years so I am used to watching myself on screen and accepting the flaws. The tough part was eating all that sugar and trying to make smart decisions during the filming process.
The highlight of your film is that while everyone would expect you to have consumed sweet foods you actually switched to so-called healthy foods such as low-fat yogurt, cereals or fruit bars. So, what’s wrong with this “healthy” stuff?
There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it, it’s just that people have been mislead into thinking it is all healthy. I think the point of the film is to try and teach people the true meaning of moderation. Most people think ice cream or chocolate is their only sugar for the day. Hopefully the film shows them exactly how much sugar they are consuming in other products.
One of the most impressive insights for me was how big of an influence sugar has on our mood and mentality. Are its effects comparable to those of a drug?
Well, Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse in the US, acknowledges that sugar is a drug for some people and that is certainly the feedback we get. It all comes down to the size of the opioid receptors in your brain. [Opioid receptors are located in the brain and the spinal column. They are responsible for aiding neurotransmitters and hormones, the most well known being our endorphins. Addictive substances like Heroin work by enacting upon these receptor sites while high sugar foods can cause similar reactions.] Some are more prone to sugar addiction than others, in the same way alcohol and nicotine affects us all differently. Sugar is no different. The mood factor is a very important topic as I think most people are completely unaware of how sugar impacts their cognition.
Your film has created huge awareness for sugar and its effects on us – and the industry counting on us being sweet tooths. Now, how can people that watched your film take action and what are your hopes in terms of changing behaviors?
To take action, I would recommend people to check out our website where we provide lots of free recipes and tips. I also wrote a companion book to the film, That Sugar Book, that really walks you through the process of lowering sugar intake.
What people need to know is that their palate adjusts. Things might taste bland in the first few weeks of lowering sugar but then you begin to notice the natural sweetness of foods and that the refined stuff tastes way too strong.
Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to take action or get involved in some way. What were and are you hoping for in terms of your film’s impact?
We have had an incredible outreach campaign that includes a free app, a school action kit that 1,000 schools have already signed up for and an Aboriginal Foundation for lowering sugar consumption on the lands. It is a full time job and tough to keep up with but we are thrilled with the response and support for all these ventures.
What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of?
THAT SUGAR FILM is Influence Film Club’s featured film for January. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.
Interview by: Julia Bier