On Dec. 30, just in time for all those New Year's resolutions about eating healthier and more sanely, a documentary by Menlo Park filmmakers Michael Schwarz and Kiki Kapany about Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" will air on KQED, and on public television stations around the country, starting at 9 p.m.
"In Defense of Food" focuses on the simple answer author and journalist Pollan found from years of research into what exactly goes into a healthy diet.
"It's very rare in our lives where the answer to a complicated question is so simple," he says in the documentary, "but when it comes to eating it is." His simple answer: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
PBS is urging viewers to hold "New Year's Resolution" dinner parties to watch the documentary, and the PBS.org website offers a discussion guide, recipes and additional information.
Working with a friend
Schwarz and Kapany, a husband and wife team who live and work in Menlo Park, previously made a documentary about Pollan's "Botany of Desire." Schwarz and Pollan have been friends since they worked together in the 1970s.
Schwarz says working with a friend has advantages. "It makes it easier," he says. "We know each other really well. I know the books and tend to know how he thinks."
Because Pollan is often involved in a new project by the time the funds have been raised to make a documentary, "he pretty much leaves us alone to make the movie," Schwarz says. "He trusts us to be able to take the work and translate it."
While Pollan is onscreen in much of "In Defense of Food," it only took about three days to film those scenes, Schwarz says.
The two-hour documentary looks at some of the people and places whom Pollan or the filmmakers visited in the course of their research, from Tanzania to Paris and around the United States, including a visit to a community of Seventh Day Adventists who have a longer average lifespan than almost any other group.
The on-site filming "is the best part of our jobs," said Schwarz. They get to meet and talk to people "who are doing things that really matter," Schwarz says, or people they're never otherwise come in contact with, such as members of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania, who live much as they have for centuries.
"We get to film them and ask them intimate questions," Kapany says. "They end up feeling quite close to us."
Because the couple's two daughters, Misha and Ariana, are now young adults, they often are involved as well. Misha traveled to Africa with Schwarz and took still photos for the production.
After graduating from University of California, Los Angeles, Misha is thinking of going into the family business and trying to decide on a film school. In the meantime, she recently served as a director's assistant on "Viceroy House" in India, which she is familiar with from annual visits to relatives there.
Ariana, who graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, also has been involved in the family video production company, known as Kikim Media, and traveled to locations such as Brazil. She still lives in Menlo Park and is a yoga teacher. Both sisters graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School.
The family ended up in Menlo Park mostly because Kapany's parents live in Woodside. The couple had been living in Berkeley, but once they had children, "when we started thinking about schools and grandparents, the combination brought us here," Kapany said. She grew up in Woodside and attended Castilleja School in Palo Alto.
Kikim Media got started in 1996 after Schwarz's employer, KQED, had some funding problems. Schwarz decided to try filmmaking, and fundraising, on his own; in 2016 the company will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Kikim Media originally had offices in San Carlos, but has been in Menlo Park since the early 2000s, when the couple wanted to be more available for their daughters who were then at Hillview Middle School. Kapany cut back on her law practice and devoted more time to running Kikim. "It turns out she's much better at that than I am," Schwarz says.
Not all glamour
While travel to places like Paris and Tanzania, or London, Spain, Brazil and Peru makes documentary making sound romantic, some aspects are a little less so, the couple says. Raising the funds to make a documentary can take as much time as making the film, they say, and they have become adept at writing grant proposals.
Their work has won numerous awards including three national Emmys, two George Foster Peabody awards, the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University journalism award, and the grand prize in the Robert F. Kennedy journalism awards for coverage of the disadvantaged.
Past projects Kikim Media has been involved in, in addition to "The Botany of Desire," include "Capturing Grace," about the Mark Morris Dance group working with people with Parkinson's disease; "Extreme by Design," about design thinking in schools; and "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," a biography of the Muslim prophet (which includes no images of Muhammad or those close to him).
Current projects include "The Valley," a three-hour history of Silicon Valley, and "The Ornament of the World," a two-hour history of medieval Spain.
"In Defense of Food" talks about some of the aspects of the Western diet that have negatively affected the health of those who eat it. Pollan sees "nutritionism" as "the reason something as simple as eating has become so complicated," he says in the film.
Nutritionism looks at foods as their components, and not as a whole, he says, and "in nutritionism there is always a blessed nutrient and an evil nutrient." Those blessed and evil nutrients are then often advertised on the packaging of processed food and often sway consumer's choices.
An example is the low-fat craze which swept the U.S., which encouraged people to eat more sugar instead, while obesity and diabetes steadily increased. "It's tragic," he says, "because in the process of doing this ... we may have made the public health worse."
While low-fat foods seem to have fallen out of fashion, there are still lots of pitfalls to be found in the grocery store, he says. In the film, Pollan shows a container of yogurt, which most think of as a "healthy food," which contains as much sugar as a soda. "It's really gotten treacherous out there," he says.
One consequence of Kikim's work on "In Defense of Food," Kapany says: "Our office has been eating much better since we've been working on this film."
PBS.org has a preview of the documentary, healthful recipes, study guides and tips for holding a viewing dinner party. A series of 10 middle school class lessons based on "In Defense of Food" are available by clicking on the link and checking the box "use your educational materials) and community screenings of the film can be arranged. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.