McLibel and Supersize Me

Supersize Me/McLibel

When I agreed to go to this anti-fast-food double bill, I didn’t realise that it would be on one of the warmest days of the year. So on this rare, sunny day, I was sitting in the dark in the Soho Curzon with about 100 anti-globalisation activists.

As most people will be aware, Supersize Me follows film-maker Morgan Spurlock on his 30-day journey from healthy New Yorker (walks everywhere, slim, lives with a vegan chef) to rapidly expanding all-American super slob – via eating exclusively at McDonald’s. His rapid weight gain and corresponding increase in cholesterol soon leads to health problems and Spurlock is repeatedly begged to stop: by his doctors, nutritionist and girlfriend.

Although his first Supersize Meal leads to indigestion and, eventually, vomiting, Spurlock perseveres against all advice, including that of McDonald’s. At the end of the film, he has gained a stone that takes six months to lose and his liver has gone into meltdown.

McDonald’s has criticised the film, claiming that of course they don’t recommend that people eat at their restaurants every day and that they now offer ‘healthy options’ including salads and fresh fruit. The salads they offer contain, with dressing, the same number of calories and amount of fat as their standard Big Mac, so I’m not sure whose definition of ‘healthy’ they’re using. They are also phasing out the Supersize option, which offers an alarmingly enormous portion of fries (literally enough to feed a family) and about a gallon of fizzy drink (representing around 50 teaspoons of sugar). Anyone who’s visited the States has probably been slightly startled by the gargantuan portion sizes offered can’t help coming to the conclusion that the food’s been exposed to some sort of freakish radioactive expand-a-ray. Being America, it probably has.

But Spurlock’s point isn’t that McDonald’s makes you fat – it’s *how* they make you fat. A few days into the experiment, and he reports feeling exhausted all the time and constantly craving more McDonald’s fare. In New York, McDonald’s deliver and it’s clear how easy it is to get loaded up on hidden calories (particularly in the buns), especially when you feel so tired out. If you were wondering how it is that so many Americans are morbidly obese, this is how. It’s very easy to state, as just about all nutritionists do, that fast food should be a very occasional treat – between once a fortnight and once a month – but when your current junk food diet has made you feel constantly knackered and craving the next carbohydrate high, it’s a big step *not* to pick up the phone and organise your next fix to be delivered to your door.

Supersize Me was followed by a film following the McLibel Two as they defended McDonald’s libel suit against them.

Helen Steel and David Morris were famously sued for libel by McDonalds over 10 years ago. Being two unemployed local activists, they decided to defend the case in what became the longest running trial in UK legal history. Because libel cases don’t qualify for legal aid (had they *slandered* McDonalds, it would have been a different matter), they had to do the work themselves, helped by a growing band of volunteers. At the end of the case, the judge upheld the libel claim on some points, but Steel and Morris were vindicated on several others. For two lay people, this was an impressive result.

Although I know the story of McLibel quite well, having had the mixed fortune to share a house with a “joiner” for several years (a “joiner” is one of those people who likes to join in with whatever anti-thingy is going on at the moment – no bad thing, but they tend to resist analysing whatever they’re against and suggesting alternatives), the film was interesting and at times genuinely gripping.

After the film, Helen, David and the film maker, a very posh young lady called Fran, took questions fro the audience. After some vague whinings about “evil corporations” and the stunning revelation that – gasp! – corporations are run solely for profit, Nick decided to do some agit-prop of his own. He pointed out to the McLibel 2 that everything they were using to promote their cause (the computers, the film equipment, the Eurostar that was shortly to take them to the European Parliament, even the cinema they were sitting in) was the result of corporations and capitalism. Whilst it’s very laudable to protest against the hegemony of large companies that abuse their employees and the environment in the pursuit of profit, one needs to have a clear idea of what one is fighting against and what would be put in its place.

David Morris ummed and ahhed and said that corporations were bad, and that one should act locally. The cinema owner then piped up and said “this cinema is not a corporation” – not true. The Curzon cinema is part of the French owned Curzon cinema chain, which specialises in independent films. Yes, it’s not a PLC, but it is a large company. I got the impression that the definition of “corporation” is somewhat hazy and can be used to mean whatever one wants it to mean.

Morris went on to say how the McLibel case was only a small part of his life as an activist, and that he’d been drawn into it by accident. He apparently prefers to act locally, which is fine. However, he doesn’t seem to recognise the power of McLibel. McDonalds has tried to re-brand. Books like Shopped and Fat Land now detail the damaging power of large food companies and the cost both to our health and the environment. This sort of comment was taboo before McLibel. Due to consumer power (the best weapon the public has in a capitalist society), food companies are trying to change. I do feel that Morris in particular should realise that McLibel has changed the world in some way, and be proud of his achievement.

As we were leaving, I overheard someone say that David Morris sounded like a man unsure of what he was fighting against. I’m inclined to agree.

I await the McLibel sequel with interest.

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