Rocky Tayeh, a senior in high school, has aspirations to be on the radio, and, indeed, he puts together his own radio program. The topic that’s front and center? His struggles with weight loss. He has problems losing weight because his Brooklyn neighborhood is home to a diverse array of restaurants and eateries — offering up pizza, donuts, Chinese, you name it, and most of it available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mary Dimino, an attractive, plumpish actress and comedian, laments that she has to work out three hours every day “just to maintain the level of chubbiness” she has now. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Mary learned a lot about nutrition and began to apply that knowledge to her own struggle with weight. Over a period of several years and a slavish commitment to her daily workout she was successful in losing a significant amount of weight.
Tayeh and Dimino are just two of the compelling stories told in a new documentary, “FAT: What No One Is Telling You,” that make its debut on PBS stations nationwide on Wednesday, April 11, at 9 p.m. The documentary is narrated by Today show host Meredith Vieira, who says in a press statement, “Blaming the victim has kept us from seeking fundamental solutions to this epidemic.”
The documentary was produced by Skillman documentary filmmakers Tom and Linda Spain and directed by Flemington’s Andy Frederick. Immediately following the documentary, at 10:30 p.m., another Princeton area resident, Nancy Snyderman, chief medical editor for NBC, hosts “Take One Step for Your Family’s Health,” which further addresses the issues raised in the documentary.
Even the executive producer — and the person who created the idea for the film — Naomi Boak, is originally from this area; she grew up in East Brunswick. “In many ways it was my story,” says Boak. “I was fat as a kid, and the way I characterize it now is that I have maintained a healthy weight about half my life.” Boak, who weighs a bit over 200 pounds at 5 feet, 4 inches tall, has dealt with the dilemma of obesity all of her life.
Obesity and being overweight represent a very complex problem, says Boak. “I know that it is a deep emotional and societal problem. It has always been far more complex than how we have been talking about it. You cannot keep shouting at people to eat less and move more. We have bodies made for 50,000 years ago but not the same environment.”
According to Boak, society needs “to change the conversation about obesity. We have a problem not of obesity, but of obesities. Things are not the same for every person.” Obese people, Boak says, represent the last frontier for blatant discrimination in this society.
Spain, 72, whose wife, Linda, works as his senior editor, has made more than 50 films, most of which have been broadcast as primetime specials on commercial networks or, now, on PBS. Among his most well-known work is “The Fire Next Door,” a 1977 Bill Moyers vehicle that won an Emmy, as well as another CBS Reports, “Anyplace But Here,” which won the Spains three Emmys. He also produced a series of award-winning White Papers for Tom Brokaw at NBC.
As he began working on “FAT” about two years ago, Spain’s attitude toward the obese was, he admitted, typical. “When Naomi called me with the idea for the project and asked me what I thought about it the first thing that went through my mind was a fat joke,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. “That was typical of the prejudice we all carry about fat people.”
Outside of that, “the first thing I thought was that it would not be interesting,” says Spain. “Obesity’s in the news every other hour. Specials come on every week. People like Al Roker and Oprah have beaten the issue to death. That was my first reaction. I thought, ‘What could I do with this area that hasn’t already been done before?’”
Then he spoke more extensively with Boak. “For Naomi, having been fat all her life, it has been a very difficult ride. She let me know that for people who deal with the condition, it is not a situation where they lack character or willpower or are deficient.”
He gained further insight into the condition when he attended an obesity conference, where physicians and other professionals presented research findings and other information. “After being there a couple of days and hearing the papers, I was appalled that nobody actually had any results,” says Spain. “What they have kind of showed that, well, basically nothing really works. And I found that staggering.”
In addition to interviews with scientists who are attempting to understand the problem of obesity, “FAT: What No One Is Telling You” focuses on several people from disparate geographical areas and walks of life. To Spain, getting the stories of the people was the most crucial part of the production. “It is very difficult to find people like Mary and Rocky. They are needles in a haystack,” he says. “First of all, they have to be people who want to tell their stories, and they have to be able to tell their stories well, and they have to have a certain personality that the camera likes. And that rules out just about all of us.”
Boak said she first met Spain 30 years ago when both were working with former Princeton documentary filmmaker Dick Roberts (now a resident of Greenwich, CT). “Tom was the first person who came to mind. I was really thrilled to get a chance to work with Tom,” she says. Spain returns the compliment. “I consider myself very fortunate to sit here in Skillman and get a call from someone like Naomi,” he says. “Working on this film was like paradise.”
To Boak, Spain proved to be an interviewer who showed humor, humility, and, most importantly, empathy. “Empathy was so natural for him that he was able to get the story in a fresh way. I am not sure where that comes from, but you see it in all of his films,” says Boak.
Spain says that by working on the film, he came to understand the problems of the obese, especially the rampant discrimination they face on a daily basis. And without realizing it, he developed even another layer of empathy. The Spains’ son, Matthew, now 32, is autistic. (For a time Matthew used to deliver copies of U.S.1’s sister publication, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, often with a helper or his dad by his side. “I loved that,” says Tom Spain. “We would go down there at seven in the morning and go cruise the neighborhoods. I’ve been in some classy journalism circles, but that was the best.”)
‘I grew up looking out for No. 1,” says Spain. “But when you have a handicapped kid, you get to experience the wonder of the kindness of strangers.”
Spain grew up in Morristown, the son of a librarian and an advertising man. As a young man, he was more interested in music and radio than anything else — he wanted to be a DJ. “I wanted to be this cool guy on the radio,” he says. He worked on the radio station at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (he arrived in 1952 to study English literature but left without a degree) and later briefly in commercial radio. “I wanted to play Count Basie and stuff like that. When kids called up and wanted to hear Elvis, I would say, ‘Who’s that?’ That’s why I was a failed disc jockey.”
At a funeral Spain met a friend who was making business and industrial films in New York City. Spain went to the firm, and that is where he was turned on to the documentary. “The people who worked there thought documentaries were interesting. They used to show them at lunchtime!”
In 1957, he got a job working as an editor on a Duke Ellington documentary and later collaborated with Paul Hance, a pioneer in film sound engineering.
Spain came to the Princeton area in the mid-1960s because this area “was the center for making industrial films. I came here because I wanted to work with these people. It was a good bunch of people.”
The first film Spain tried to make never got finished. “Two guys had a company down at Mercer County Airport. They were trying to build a Zeppelin,” he says. “They wrecked it one morning without calling me to come over and take the pictures.”
Spain later took film courses at New York University. “In my little class was (Oscar-winning editor) Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese.” Spain met his wife, then Linda Starr, when he joined the Editors’ Guild.
Spain says he has been under stress lately because Linda has been hospitalized (for a serious illness) but he finds some time to supervise his converted garage/studio and ride his bicycle, a hobby he picked up in the early 1970s after making a film about bicycling in Princeton.
One thing Spain — who has a slim, tall frame — came to realize after making “FAT” was that in physical terms, he was not much different from some of the overweight people he encountered in restaurants and other places where food was available. “I just was lucky in that I didn’t have to deal with the (physical) situation that they had.”
Outside of the realistic but — in the context of the societal discrimination of the obese — depressing conclusion that there is no real scientific explanation nor “cure” for obesity, there are two major points that “FAT: What No One Is Telling You” tries to make.
First, the only real way out of obesity, or the only means that approaches being close to a solution, is surgery. “We went into this thinking that surgery was this Gothic horror — mutilation in the name of our addiction to thinness,” says Spain. “We came away thinking much differently. It is still a horror, but given what the choices are for very heavy people — if you are, say, 400 pounds — nothing really works. It can be almost totally hopeless unless you have some help like that.”
In other words, diet, harassment, drugs, exercise, behavior modification, and any other solution can work — but only in the short term. The body eventually adjusts to the weight loss and becomes even more stingy, making it harder and harder to maintain a low weight. Hence the dilemma facing Mary Dimino, who has worked into good physical condition but continues to have millions of fat cells — smaller but still present — that continue to try to hold on to as many calories as they can.
Second, fat people are encouraged to get in the best shape, physically, mentally and spiritually, that they possibly can, no matter what their weight. The best way to deal with obesity, the experts and documentarians agree, is to be in the best shape you can be in — no matter what your weight.
There is some science in the documentary that hasn’t been discussed in the media. Lee Kaplan, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard, who runs the gastroenterology laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, says in the film that the human body has a conflict between the brain and the neurological system — what he calls the “second brain” — inside the gut. When the body tries to determine how much and what to eat, Kaplan says in the film, the mind is often in conflict with the “second brain.” If the gut wants food, it doesn’t matter what the brain says, according to Kaplan. The stomach wins.
Kaplan compares the body’s hunger drive to the human body’s response to running up six flights of stairs. You can force yourself to breathe slowly for a few seconds, despite this exertion, but ultimately your body will demand more oxygen and you’ll breathe faster. When it comes to decisions about how much to eat, a similar battle occurs between your conscious will and your subconscious. And if your subconscious brain wants more food, it wins and you eat more.
Several other experts that Spain contacted for information never appear on camera, but he says they had a huge impact on the documentary nevertheless. He says he was especially fascinated by the conversations he had with Robert C. Whitaker, senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research in Plainsboro.
Whitaker is a specialist in childhood obesity and its relationship to chronic disease in adults. “At first he didn’t want to talk to me,” says Spain. He says the doctor had been cautious because he believed the media as a matter of course sensationalizes and simplifies the question of obesity.
Spain, however, proceeded as he always does — and just let his interviewee speak. Whitaker’s insights were invaluable to the project, says Spain. “This guy really has a grasp of this. The only other person on that level is Lee Kaplan.” Kaplan says, “Weight loss is not a simple balance between energy in and energy out. If it were, we would have solved the obesity problem long ago.”
In “FAT” we also meet Carla Hurd, a marketing executive at Microsoft who has gained about 120 pounds over the last 12 years. Even with the comprehensive weight management program funded by Microsoft — including the support of personal trainers, doctors, dieticians, and psychologists — and a profound motivation to get pregnant, Hurd’s success in the battle to lose weight remains elusive.
With surgery still the apparent best hope for the morbidly obese, Rocky Tayeh makes a decision — despite the disapproval of his family and his own doubts about “taking the easy way out” — to have surgery. He loses 150 pounds and faces the prospect of a new life in college without the embarassment, shame, and stigma of beingan obese person.
That kaleidoscope of human emotion that those who are overweight experience on a daily basis is artfully encapsulated in the 90 minutes of Tom Spain’s insightful and revealing documentary.
“FAT: What No One Is Telling You,” Wednesday, April 11, 9 to 10:30 p.m., airing on PBS. Documentary produced by Naomi Boak and Tom Spain examines the intense human dramas that rage inside people who are overweight and explains why their weight problems are so hard to solve.