With the addition of the Pete Evans-produced health documentary The Magic Pill to its library, Netflix continue a slate of commissions and acquisitions that are either bold or tone deaf, depending on your perspective. See also: the second season to the controversial 13 Reasons Why, among the most socially irresponsible television shows of the 21st century, and an as-yet unnamed series from comedian Chris Lilley – whose career, at least in terms of local broadcasters, seemed all but over. Evans is the much-maligned paleo and activated almonds enthusiast, quite possibly the most scorned Australian chef in history.
Evans might consider this derision proof that he has upset the establishment, ruffling the feathers of vested interests and medical professionals supposedly duped by them. Like many outspoken and against-the-grain (in this case, in more ways than one) critics who have been repeatedly called out by experts, Evans, instead of retreating, got his back up and doubled down. Thus a feature documentary machine-tooled to prove his point, directed by a true believer: the filmmaker Rob Tate. The Magic Pill’s critics include Dr Michael Gannon, head of the Australian Medical Association, who nominated it as the film/TV production least likely to contribute to public health.
The warning that precedes The Magic Pill – advising viewers to consult with medical professionals – does not absolve the filmmakers of responsibility.
Evans and Tate present a paleo (high fat) diet as, in effect, a miracle cure for cancer and diabetes, and a powerful way to treat autism. The film begins in East Arnhem Land, explaining the poor health of the Yolngu people as a result of a western style diet. There is unquestionably a connection between health and diet; everybody knows that. But the filmmakers set the tone for the rest of the documentary when they present this issue in isolation. The truth, of course, is that many factors contribute to the health of Indigenous people – such as poverty, high rates of alcohol and drug consumption and lack of access to health services.
Were the filmmakers aware of this? If the answer is “no” they come from a position of ignorance. If the answer is “yes”, and they decided to leave these considerations out (when quiered on such matters, documentarians will often say they ‘couldn’t fit it all in’) this constitutes an act of intellectual subterfuge. Like the ideologically putrid men’s rights activist documentary The Red Pill, which reported that the vast majority of people who have died fighting in wars throughout history are men (but neglected to mention that woman are often not allowed to even serve) The Magic Pill reminds us that omission can be a powerful thing.
The contents of the film may champion a healthy diet, but the construction of it reflects deeply dubious thinking.
About 20 minutes in, one anti-wheat advocate explains that wheat was added to our diet 10,000 years ago. This “sounds like a long time” but in fact “represents less than one half of one percent of (sic) human race’s time on earth.” The obvious inference is that our health is rescinding, and there is virtue in winding the clock back. But did human beings actually live longer, healthier and happier lives many thousands of years ago?
Of course not. As Scientific American recently reported, “analyses of fossil teeth indicate that grandparents were rare in ancient populations, such as those of the australopithecines and the Neandertals.” According to this story published by the BBC, capturing more recent data – and there’s plenty more where that came from – the average life expectancy of a human in the UK circa the 1200s was around 31 years.
Evans and Tate might respond to these reports by claiming such observations miss the point; they might question the veracity of the data. But by not addressing these obvious counter arguments in the documentary itself, they have constructed a hypothesis that is weak at best. Any academic worth their salt will tell you that an important part of constructing a thesis is anticipating criticism and preemptively addressing it. In a world of complexities and competing ideologies, where the truth often gets distorted, this is a necessary discourse. It also demonstrates what we often call ‘nuance’.
This is a very dangerous message. It might compel a sick and vulnerable person to think they can put down their medicine, and replace it with a juicy steak and some veggies.
Deploying inspirational cliches such as costal images and people riding bicycles in sunshine, The Magic Pill visits subjects who are desperate and ill. They try out Evans’ paleo diet. Returning only weeks later, the filmmakers observe startling transformations. The asthma sufferer apparently no longer needs their Ventolin. The diabetic apparently no longer needs insulin. The autistic child is speaking for the first time. One woman with cancer discusses how, after switching to a high fat diet, she no longer requires surgery or chemotherapy.
Let’s assume, for argumentative purposes (because this is a big assumption) that Evans’ diet did indeed provide a panacea for these once-unfortunate peoples’ woes. By focusing only on these case studies – and not mentioning examples of times when the diet didn’t, or might not work – the suggestion is that it works every time.
This is a very dangerous message. It’s the sort of message that might compel a sick and vulnerable person to think they can put down their medicine, and replace it with a juicy steak and some veggies. The warning that precedes The Magic Pill – advising viewers to consult with medical professionals – does not absolve the filmmakers of responsibility. The contents of the film may champion a healthy diet, but the construction of it reflects deeply dubious thinking: either ignorance or subterfuge. It is reasonable not just to scrutinise the film and its makers, but to question Netflix’s motives for acquiring it.