TL;DR – Where this documentary excels is in both illuminating complicating an issue, namely vitamins, that many people take for granted which are part of that is $100 Billion dollar industry with very little or in some cases no regulation.
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
As a society, I really feel that we are becoming more and more attuned to what it is we are putting in our bodies and the negative consequences that could have. We’ve had the discussions about fat, salt, carbs, and most recently sugar, however, in all those discussions have we missed something that we need to have to give that same level of scrutiny to. This is, of course, vitamins and I think you would have already guessed from the title of the documentary. Many of us take all sorts of dietary supplements, but are they actually beneficial for us? This is the question that the documentary helmed by Sonya Pemberton and hosted by Derek Muller is out to explore. This is a question that I am interested in myself as I grew up taking vitamins and as an adult there is a lot of noise in this issue ranging from “You are just making expensive pee” to “You are killing yourself if you don’t” and it is difficult to work out what is the reality. Which is what this documentary sets out to do through information, interviews, case studies, and the occasional song.
So to set the scene, vitamins are a $100 billion dollar industry, but also given how widespread it is and what they are dealing with, it is also a very under-regulated industry. It is an industry that is also not afraid to use lawsuits against critical voices like an Australian consumer affairs program here in Australia The Checkout discovered when they also looked at the local industry. In America when the FDA tried to regulate the industry, Congress passed a law forbidding the FDA from checking the science behind vitamins. Part of the issue with looking at vitamins is that we have created a system where they have a halo effect, we as consumers inherently trust the claims we see in vitamin marketing that we can be bombarded with at times (indeed even during the very documentary critique the industry were there ads for vitamins). However, does the science back those claims up, and here we come to the crux of the documentary, it is not a black/white issue, because we don’t know enough to draw those distinctions.
The first thing that really catches you with this documentary is the steps that they have gone to with the analysis. This could have been done talking in a studio but throughout the documentary, we visit the cold snowfields of Norway’s Arctic Svalbard to the sunny beaches of Brisbane’s Southbank and everything in between. We visit the place where they first traditionally made Cod Liver Oil one of the first marketed vitamins, the labs preparing food for a mission to Mars, and the outside of an artificial vitamin factory (they were not allowed to film inside). However, more than that we visit the people whose lives have been affected both positively and negatively by vitamins. Indeed it is this human side of the documentary that packs a real emotional punch because it takes all the abstract discussions around vitamins and makes them real, like the mothers trying to care for their children. These are the moments when the documentary can get deeply heart-breaking because who as a parent would not want the best for their children. But also questions do we know what we are giving ourselves, and our children when what is on the label may have little to no relation to what is in the tablet.
The second thing you notice is all the little, and not so little, touches they have made to the documentary to help it be useful to someone who does not have an advanced chemistry degree like me. We see this first with the choice of host, Derek Muller, who runs the popular science YouTube channel Veritasium that has almost five million subscribers. Derek got his PhD in Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education which goes to the heart of the design of the documentary and why he is so good in this role. However, as well as this, he is a father to a young son, so he has a personal stake in wading through all the noise surrounding this issue. The documentary is both engaging but also deeply informative, and then they also eat fresh fermented Cod Liver Oil, and well ew, I’m glad it was you doing that and not me. Now, part of that engagement comes from the many musical numbers that are sprinkled throughout the documentary. Not only are these songs, written and performed by Casey Bennetto, engaging and informative, summing up everything that we have learned so far, but they are also added to with some gorgeous animations. These animations almost make it feel like you are watching a work of augmented reality and it just draws you in. All of these small additions help break down the scientific barriers that can sometimes occur when dealing with quite technical elements.
In the end, vitamins can help the blind see, or they can potentially kill you, and that is a lot of range for a thing that people take daily. So what does this all mean? Well to reverberate the closing message of the documentary, we should not be treating vitamins like something we just pop and forget, but as what they should be, medicine. They deserve that respect, but they also deserve that same level of scrutiny.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Vitamania
Directed by – Sonya Pemberton
Written by – Sonya Pemberton
Music/Songs by – Casey Bennetto & Rafael May
Cinematography by – Harry Panagiotidis
Edited by – Wayne Hyett
Starring – Derek Muller with Casey Bennetto, Catherine Price, Yasmin Probst, Eric Churchill, John Waller, Fiona Stanley, Mathilde Touvier, Magritt Brustad, Diane Wendt, Rachel Neale, Tim Spector, Monina Cabrera, Pieter Cohen, Steven Novella, Walter Willett, Grace Douglas, Cian Moore, Kerry Moore, Sonny Lopez, Debbie Robins, Kim Robins & Becky Jackson.