In the Dark

Scott Hamilton Kennedy's 2008 documentary, The Garden, established him

as a director to be watched.

The raw verité film brought to life a heartbreaking political fight between an immigrant-run community garden and an encroaching real estate developer, telling a sympathetic yet nuanced story of a besieged underclass—capturing both the weaknesses and strengths of David as he takes on Goliath.

Kennedy’s complex treatment of race, class and power resonated with audiences and earned him an Oscar nomination. Which is why his latest turn in filmmaking, taking square aim at the activist class he sided with in The Garden, marked such a striking departure. Food Evolution, Kennedy’s newest documentary, trades nuance for finger wagging, at once vilifying critics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and exalting the companies and scientists that promote these controversial crops.

The 2017 film is also remarkable for its provenance: Kennedy was commissioned and funded to make Food Evolution by a group called the Institute of Food Technologists, led by an agribusiness veteran who had worked for GMO giants including Monsanto and DuPont. These vested interests are not clearly disclosed to audiences.

Though most moviegoers might imagine that a director’s only client is his or her audience, the reality of documentary filmmaking is more complicated, as industry groups, advertising agencies and companies today hire filmmakers to tell their stories, which are released and streamed to the public as independent documentaries. In much the way that Facebook users have been targeted unwittingly for political propaganda and misinformation campaigns, viewers of documentary films have become captive, unsuspecting audiences for industry messaging that is shaping how we think about controversial topics, whether it is how we should grow food, manage the opioid addiction crisis, or address climate change.

New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle regrets agreeing to be interviewed for Food Evolution, calling it a “highly sophisticated propaganda film for the food biotechnology industry.” She is featured in the film saying she hasn’t seen convincing evidence that GMOs are unsafe to eat, a statement that she says is so “hugely out of context” with her real views that she repeatedly asked Kennedy to remove her from the film. He refused.

Michael Pollan, best-selling author and journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley, also regrets participating in Food Evolution, saying he agreed to be interviewed before Kennedy disclosed his funding from an industry group.

Pollan is featured in the film repeatedly speaking uncritically about GMOs, even though he has written unfavorably about the technology for decades, telling me he views GMOs as “mostly hype.”

Pollan and Nestle are not out-and-out opponents of GMOs, but they do offer high-level criticism—environmental concerns, health effects associated with pesticide usage, the outsize role that industry groups play in the GMO debate—that Food Evolution’s simplistic narrative ignores. The thesis of the film, as Nestle sees it, is that critics of GMOs are “anti-science, ignorant, and stupid.”

Food Evolution argues that African farmers, in the absence of GMO technologies, cannot feed their families. Photo courtesy of Food Evolution.

Kennedy markets the film as a “transparent” examination of genetically modified foods “through the unbiased lens of science.” Yet his camera seems less focused on the scientific discourse than on attacking the weakest critics of GMOs, who are shown in the least favorable light. Respectable professors like Pollan and Nestle are misrepresented to appear as tacit supporters of genetically modified foods (alongside an impressive stable of academic boosters), while Kennedy portrays critics of GMOs as a motley crew of fear-mongering charlatans and paid hit men and women from the anti-GMO industrial complex.

To many audiences, especially those who enter the film with little knowledge of the GMO issue, Food Evolution could come across as thoughtful, independent, investigative journalism. In its review, The New York Times praised the film as balanced and science-driven: “With a soft tone, respectful to opponents but insistent on the data, Food Evolution posits an inconvenient truth for organic boosters to swallow: In a world desperate for safe, sustainable food, G.M.O.s may well be a force for good.”

The Times was one of the few news outlets to mention that the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) commissioned the documentary, but, in the same breath, distanced the film from any “Big Ag company or lobbying group.”

Yet the IFT, over the years, has pushed federal regulators to look favorably on pending GMO applications from Pioneer Hi-Bred (owned by DuPont) and Monsanto. And as Kennedy began work on Food Evolution, the elected president of the IFT, Janet Collins, was a veteran of Big Ag, whose resume included Monsanto, DuPont, and CropLife, a lobby group. The group’s decades of positive messaging on GMOs, such as its report titled, Biotech Foods Are As Safe, If Not Safer, Than Conventional Foods, is largely indistinguishable from industry talking points—or from Food Evolution’s narrative.

Images courtesy of Food Evolution.

Moreover, the IFT’s role in Food Evolution (and the GMO industry’s role in the IFT) isn’t clearly disclosed to audiences. It wasn’t listed on the movie poster, in film festival programs or theatrical listings, or on any of the online streaming platforms where the film is available today, including Hulu and Amazon. The only mention of the IFT is in the small print at the very end of the film credits, which describe the group as a “scientific society.”

At the DC Environmental Film Festival, Kennedy strenuously defended the independence of his film, saying he had “complete creative control” and “final cut.” He declined a follow-up interview, but he did address Nestle and Pollan’s criticism of misrepresentation on a podcast called EcoModernist.

“They’re both journalists, and they understand the process of deciding what is worthy of the story that they’re telling,” said Kennedy, who denied misrepresenting them. “They understand how difficult the process is of what stays and what goes.”

But for journalists, there are editorial rules and standards for deciding what stays and what goes. There are also clear rules for avoiding financial conflicts of interest, which are associated with bias and can generate public distrust.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of conduct, for example, tells reporters to “avoid conflicts of interest” and to “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

For documentarians, there are no such guidelines. And in this ethical vacuum, a culture of financing has emerged that makes it ever harder for audiences to discern nonfiction from fiction, documentary from public relations, news from fake news.

Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Robert Stone volunteered Food Evolution as just one case.

There are countless examples of outrageous conflicts of interest in the doc world . . . They include some of the biggest names in the business.

-Robert Stone
Academy Award nominated filmmaker

Documentarians are now working with all manner of vested interests, making films that align with their funders’ interests or parrot their talking points. Oscar winners and nominees are accepting these commissioned projects, which are screened and streamed by the same outlets as independent features. Even PBS, which many audiences look to as the hallmark of independent programming, has shown industry-funded documentaries without clear disclosures.

If documentary films now function as advertising, a measure of their success would be winning over the public. Kennedy has presided over many screenings of Food Evolution—at film festivals, movie theaters and universities—and made a point to poll audiences about GMOs before and after the film. He reports major swings in public opinion, moving in favor of GMOs.

Food Evolution may also be influencing public policy as it makes its way into corridors of power. The National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC screened the film as part of a taxpayer-funded investigation into the nation’s agricultural research needs. The film also screened at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in Rome, where Kennedy sternly warned, “We must stop fake news and stop fear-mongering propaganda.”

A scene from Food Evolution. Clip courtesy of Food Evolution.

Big Advertising

That documentary films are becoming tools to advance corporate brands

and industry messages may come as a surprise until you understand how obvious the financial model is to the advertising industry.

As an executive from Pereira & O’Dell noted in Fast Company in 2016, “Usually we pay for eyeballs in advertising, but here you have people paying money to see it . . . That’s an ah-ha moment.”

For this new genre of advertising-cum-documentary to effectively win over audiences, however, it must be “authentic,” in advertising parlance—driven by credible storytelling, not naked solicitation. Getting into film festivals, creating buzz, winning over critics, and generating a paying audience means these films have to look and feel like independent features.

When Whole Foods and the nonprofit Humane Society of the United States wanted to make a film about animal welfare, they didn’t hire a film director. They hired advertising executives.

At the Fork follows husband-wife filmmakers John Papola and Lisa Versaci as they road trip across the country to visit farms and reflect on the ethics of raising animals for food production. Released in 2016, the film currently streams on Amazon Prime. (Amazon acquired Whole Foods in 2017).

Stills from At the Fork. Photos courtesy of Emergent Order.

At the Fork includes an interview with the CEO of Whole Foods, and recommends that viewers buy animal products bearing third-party welfare certifications, specifically the ones used by Whole Foods. But the grocer’s role as a funder isn’t disclosed until the final credits, and the film never disclosed that the filmmakers run an advertising company, Emergent Order.

Papola says “there was no effort to hide” Whole Foods’ involvement, but also argued that in the marketplace of ideas, audiences have to do their own homework.

“Independent documentaries about animal welfare aren’t exactly popcorn fare for people who don’t look into the film before they start watching it,” Papola said. “I have a fair amount of faith in people to inform themselves.”

It’s not clear how many audiences would be the dogged sleuths that Papola imagines, or would think to question whether the documentaries they look to for independent, critical perspectives may have an unstated financial agenda. 

While few people enter a movie theater expecting to get objective truth, do moviegoers realize that documentaries are sometimes blurring the line with industry public relations?

“People will be completely unaware of the fact that there is any financial stake that anybody would have in what’s being said,” said Stephen Ujlaki, a filmmaker and former dean of the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television. 

Ujlaki sees financial interests bending documentary filmmaking away from independent investigations and storytelling, and toward money-minded, profit-driven stories.

“Because of the fact that it’s the cheapest programming around, it’s become enormously popular,” Ujlaki said.

Because of the success, there are all of these influences that are mostly pernicious.

-Stephen Ujlaki
Filmmaker and former dean, Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television

The Food Advocacy Documentary

Vested interests loom large over the sprawling canon of advocacy documentaries related to our food system.

The 2014 documentary Farmland was created with the help of the public-relations firm Ketchum, which went on to win a number of industry awards, including PR Week’s Arts, Entertainment and Media Campaign of the Year. But the film has been offered to paying audiences as an independent film, including to subscribers of both Netflix and, currently, Amazon Prime.

Farmland profiles a handful of young farmers—organic growers, factory-farm operators, a GMO producer, and a rancher—offering a celebratory film that largely avoids controversy, sidestepping serious discussions of environmental effects or animal welfare. The film’s indiscriminately glowing portrait of farming could be seen as normalizing the most controversial models of agriculture, a message that seems wholly in line with the group that quietly funded the film.

The film credits note the role of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, but audiences won’t know this is an industry group whose sponsors and board of directors, over the years, have included companies like Monsanto and DuPont. The IRS filings of the group list $2 million for “documentary costs” in 2013.

After the success of Farmland, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance expanded its  interest in documentary films, including securing the licensing rights to promote Food Evolution.

Film critics seldom make note of a documentary’s funding, but several did with Farmland, calling it “lobbyist propaganda,” and more of “a feature-length advertisement than a documentary.” But NPR was noticeably softer, questioning whether the film should be seen as “industry public relations,” given its highly respected, Oscar-winning director, James Moll.

Director of Farmland James Moll. His work as a documentary filmmaker has earned him an Academy Award, two Emmys and a Grammy. Photo courtesy of Farmland.

Hiring an award-winning director can drive up the cost of an industry film, but may prove a small price to pay for the credibility it generates and the criticism it helps diffuse. Director Robert Kenner noted that after he received an Oscar nomination for his 2009 documentary Food, Inc., which criticized various aspects of industrialized agriculture, the offers from industry came pouring in. On offer was money from corporate agribusiness interests — “in the millions” — to tell their story.

Kenner declined the overtures, but he is not universally opposed to industry funding. He accepted corporate sponsorship for Food, Inc., but only for promotion of the film, not for its production. Stonyfield, whose CEO is featured favorably in the film, helped promote Food, Inc, as did Chipotle.

Behind the scenes, food and agricultural companies of all political stripes are now sponsoring documentaries that support their bottom lines.

The 2013 film GMO OMG,* which is critical of GMOs, was partially sponsored by food companies that advertise their efforts to avoid GMO ingredients. The opening and final credits note industry sponsors, including Nature’s Path, Chipotle, Horizon Organic and Amy’s Kitchen. Most film reviewers, nevertheless, failed to report the film’s funding. 

The 2018 documentary Eating Animals, narrated by Natalie Portman and directed by Christopher Quinn, criticizes factory farms, but fails to disclose that two of its executive producers are also investors in Beyond Meat—a company whose fake meat products are favorably mentioned in the film as a solution to factory farms.

 Many reviews—in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, Vice and elsewhere—even recommended Beyond Meat by name, in a nice bit of free advertising.

The directors of GMO OMG, Eating Animals and Farmland all declined to be interviewed for this article. Pat Aufderheide, a professor in the school of communication at American University, says her research has found documentary filmmakers are deeply reluctant to publicly discuss ethical issues. 

We still only can talk about them in closed meetings when we promise not to share that information with outsiders . . . This is an area of terrific concern.

-Pat Aufderheide
Professor, American University School of Communication

In Aufderheide’s view, opening up this conversation means moving beyond “morally denouncing, which is what everyone is afraid of with ethics.” The questions we should be asking are, “What are the consequences of this, at a point at which we’re all worried about fake news?”

Creative Control

Among documentarians, Robin Hauser stands alone in her unapologetic embrace of corporate sponsors from the tech and finance industries.

“I’m a business woman, and I found an unconventional way to raise money for films,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as I’m not persuaded by the companies to alter content.”

And Hauser said she takes steps to avoid being persuaded. For example, she will not accept money from companies she plans to showcase in a given documentary. “That, to me, is a conflict. I draw the line there,” she said.

But sometimes, Hauser’s sponsors could be seen as central to the problem she is investigating, raising questions about whether funders can influence not just what a documentary says, but what it doesn’t say.

Hauser’s newest documentary, Bias, which has appeared in 15 film festivals in the last year, investigates how unconscious bias leads to discrimination, including in the workplace.

The film’s presenting sponsor, Dell, settled a case with the Department of Labor in 2018 for $2.9 million, over allegations the company was paying women and minorities less than white men. (The company admitted no liability.) Dell made headlines again this summer around allegations of discrimination against LGBTQ employees in recent years.

Hauser’s documentary makes no mention of these allegations against her sponsor.

“I allowed Dell Technologies to be presenting sponsor because I believe they are aware of the importance of equality and diversity and because they strive to create an inclusive corporate culture,” said Hauser, adding that she had seen evidence of this in workshops, meetings and conferences she attended with the company. Moreover, she said, her film did not seek to profile the “thousands of companies that have had allegations of workplace discrimination.”

Hauser’s previous film CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, which streams on Amazon Prime, examines sexism in the tech industry, but ignores one of the most widely reported examples, GoDaddy, which faced boycotts over advertising many deemed sexist.  Hauser’s funders included the then-CEO of GoDaddy, Blake Irving, who had been recently hired to salvage the company’s reputation.  Hauser said she was, and remains, convinced that Irving was turning the company around.  

Director Robin Hauser undergoes deadly force decision training in WSU Spokane’s Counter‐Bias Training Simulator (CBTSim). Photo by Vanessa Carr, courtesy of Bias.

Robin Hauser, director/producer of CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, interviewing Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators and Steve Jobs. Photo courtesy of CODE.

Like most documentarians, Hauser also argues that her funding does not affect her editorial decisions because she has complete creative control. This rationale is strikingly similar to that of politicians who deny that campaign donors influence their politics, and physicians who defend lucrative speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies.

wide body of research shows that financial interests do tend to influence behavior and introduce bias, which is why so many fields—politics, science, journalism—have developed rules around avoiding or clearly disclosing financial conflicts of interest. Documentary filmmakers have no code of ethics, in contrast. Even film schools do not offer in-depth coursework into ethics. 

The Watchdogs Sleep

Academy-Award nominated director Robert Stone says his 2012 film Pandora’s Promise

—which screened at Sundance, aired on CNN, and streams today on Amazon Prime—should be seen as a model of how to avoid financial conflicts. He cites the extraordinary step he took requiring funders to sign financial disclosure forms affirming they had no investments in nuclear energy, which his film promotes as a solution to climate change.

Pandora’s Promise is almost a perfect counter argument to your story in that we knew we’d be attacked from day one and were extremely careful to AVOID even a hint of a conflict of interest,” Stone wrote in an email.

Yet, in disclosure forms his funders signed, two reported having ties to the nuclear industry, including one with investments in TerraPower, a nuclear company whose production model is briefly and favorably discussed in Pandora’s Promise. And a New York Times review of the film noted how its one-sided pro-nuclear narrative seemed to line up with the financial interests of the film’s executive producer, Paul Allen, who had investments in “advanced nuclear energy.”

Stone counters that Allen’s funding came after the film was completed and was used only for promotion. And, Stone argues, TerraPower is a next-generation nuclear technology that goes beyond the scope of his film. The director acknowledges that others may view the financing differently, but also believes that there is a double standard in how this issue is—or is not—reviewed by critics.

“Most people bank on the fact that if you’re making a film that jives with the politics of the critics (as most docs do) nobody is going to ask questions,” said Stone. He points to the 2016 film Time to Choose, from Academy Award-winning director Charles Ferguson, which examines climate change broadly and specifically promotes renewable energy in one part. This message seems to align with the financial interests of an executive producer, Tom Dinwoodie, whose work as a solar entrepreneur is not disclosed in the film. Ferguson declined to be interviewed.

Most reviewers didn’t report Time to Choose’s funding, but it’s also the case that most media coverage of Pandora’s Promise didn’t mention its industry ties.

Film critics aren’t the only ones failing to play watchdog. Queries to film festivals, online streaming services and production companies about their editorial guidelines around financial conflicts returned few responses.

A spokesperson for PBS did respond: “PBS and its member stations are committed to providing high-quality programming that is free from commercial influence.” They do this by imposing “a strict firewall that prohibits program funders from influencing content or editorial decisions in any form.”

 

PBS also notes that it is subject to Federal Communications Commission rules that “require broadcasters to ‘fully and fairly disclose the true identity’ of all broadcast program funders.”

Nevertheless, PBS has drawn criticism for showing less-than-independent documentaries. In 2017, some PBS stations aired The Painful Truth, a documentary showing how the opioid addiction crisis has thrown up obstacles for legitimate pain patients in accessing painkillers. Last Spring, STATNews reported that the producer had extensive ties to opioid manufacturers.

Cindy Steinberg is the National Director of Policy and Advocacy at the U.S. Pain Foundation, shown here working from home in

The Painful Truth presents Cindy Steinberg as the National Director of Policy and Advocacy at the U.S. Pain Foundation, but doesn't note the foundation's funding from opioid manufacturers.

We told the story about advertising’s creative revolution in the 1960s, and those inspired by it who provided the world with better, more human advertising as a result.

-Doug Pray
Direct of Art & Copy

Film still from Art & Copy.

PBS also showed Art & Copy, a 2011 film about the advertising industry, funded by an industry group. Featured on PBS’s Independent Lens, the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival, won an Emmy, and today streams on Amazon Prime. The film’s funder, The One Club, is disclosed in the film credits. But as director Doug Pray acknowledged in an email, “Few who watched the film knew who The One Club was, and no, they aren’t a household name.” The One Club, whose current board of directors includes advertising executives, runs an annual awards ceremony for the advertising industry. “It’s a maligned industry and certainly a complex subject, but I never felt there was anything underhanded about the doc, or its financing,” Pray said. He acknowledged that the film “was also considered by some critics and peers to be an ‘ad for the ad industry,’ and I can’t blame them. It made good advertising seem good, and we weren’t out to destroy the business.” But Pray is clear-eyed about the increasingly opaque culture of documentary financing, saying he’s witnessed “more and more ‘grey area’ sources of funding for many docs.” “Whether something is being openly funded by a corporation (which is legal and can be acceptable, depending), or hidden (do we really know who all those [executive producers] are and where they got their money?), it all comes down to what’s being claimed, and what is believed by the audience,” Pray said. “If viewers know it’s sponsored content, then it’s an honest contract with the audience.” Whether audiences agree isn’t a question that’s being asked by filmmakers, who seem to enjoy immense latitude to make up the rules as they go, deciding what is and isn’t a financial conflict of interest, and how a conflict should or shouldn’t be disclosed. As reporter Bob Garfield, co-host of the podcast On the Media, noted in his 2017 review of journalistic lapses in documentary filmmaking, “Who ensures that films hew close to the reality they claim to depict? In the documentary world, it’s individual filmmakers working alone, without a clear rulebook, and with only their consciences as their guides.”  

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Tim Schwab

Tim Schwab

Tim Schwab is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Follow the author @timothywschwab. *Schwab previously worked for Food & Water Watch, which advocated for stronger regulation of energy and agricultural industries and which produced a study guide for GMO OMG. Schwab played no role in the study guide.

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