My greatest interest in documentaries is with what scholar Broderick Fox refers to as “Documentary, Power, and the Public Sphere.” Forks Over Knives was released in 2011 and tackles the question of invoking diet to prevent and fight diseases, while critiquing the Western diet and health authorities in the US. It is an appropriate example of why I love activist documentary.
From a film theory perspective the clip above, though only 2 minutes and 32 seconds long, and involving only 1 single speaker, represents all three spheres that Fox theorizes on which makes this single clip compelling, authoritative, and a loud call to action.
This clip actives the Personal Sphere which is concerned with “personal individual matters of the labor class and its discreet family units.” Dr. John A. McDougall who is both a private member of society, and an educated professional, describes the validity of research on diet treating or preventing breast cancer. McDougall asserts the existence of the private sphere through his position as a doctor in the United States blatantly criticizing what is considered the norm and recommended by the vast majority of American doctors. He also describes what an individual woman does to check on and treat breast cancer in our society where all women are taught to fear it.
The next sphere is the Sphere of Public Authority which Fox explains is composed of government, litigation, law, and government institutions. Involved in this sphere are the forces that control or influence our lives from above. In its entirety, this clip responds to the Sphere of Public Authority, which has officially mandated that diet cannot cure or prevent breast cancer and has recommended that women instead undergo the processes that McDougall cites in the clip i.e. self examinations, doctor examinations, biopsies, mammograms, amputation.
The final sphere is the Public Sphere which Fox theorizes is an overlapping space where one can discuss and affect the content broadcast from the above sphere. This clip embodies the Public Sphere, and it is this discussion of ideas that fills the documentary with a wealth of content. Different medical professionals (who are also private individuals) harshly critique the information that private individuals receive from official bodies such as the American Medical Association, or the American Cancer Society. McDougall states that diet has never been adequately experimented on because what Fox identifies as the Sphere of Public Authority, has decided is too much to ask of cancer patients.
Actively involving these three social spheres causes Forks Over Knives to do what documentaries can do, according to Fox, above simply informing the viewer. Female viewers can “connect” by relating to the information provided- Observing that many woman are told to do weekly breast examinations, or viewers paying mind to the fact that their doctor has never mentioned diet to them. It “interrupts” an already ongoing process in life- perhaps certain women already have breast cancer, are undergoing treatment, and this documentary causes them to rethink their medical decisions. This documentary also “incites”- this clip is without a doubt compelling and could cause anyone to rethink the importance of diet in their overall health and disease prevention. It could also cause the masses to become very angry with the government for its incompetence in providing an array of ideas about how to prevent and treat disease.
Fox, Broderick, Documentary Media, Allyn & Bacon, 2010, Boston MA