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Stowe Director's Film 'El Susto' Holds Virtual U.S. Premiere Through VTIFF

Movie title painted on wall
Thomas Aleto, Courtesy
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'El Susto' his currenlty holding a virtual screening in conjunction with the Vermont International Film Festival.

The coronavirus is taking up most of the conversation around public health right now, but a new documentary by a Stowe filmmaker highlights another widespread health problem: Type 2 diabetes. The documentary is called El Susto, and it focuses on the high rates of diabetes in Mexico, linked to heavy consumption of sugary drinks and processed foods.

The film draws a line between U.S. companies like Coca-Cola, who’ve heavily marketed their products in Mexico, to the growing numbers of diabetes cases in the country, and to efforts by public health officials to implement a soda tax to try to decrease consumption of sugar-heavy drinks.

Karen Akins is the director and producer of the film, which is available online now through the Vermont International Film Festival.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with film director and producer Karen Akins. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: How did you decide to make this film?

Karen Akins: When I became an empty-nester, my kids had gone off to college, I volunteered for a medical mission to go with a bunch of Vermont nurses down to Mexico on a diabetes-testing mission. And I knew nothing about diabetes at the time. And we were testing people for their blood sugar, all over the Yucatan. Everywhere we went, there were these incredibly high rates of diabetes. And a lot of times people had no idea that they had it. Some people who were even blind or had amputations had no idea that it was caused by their diabetes.

So when I saw that, it really shocked me. And then the more I learned about it and I really wanted to tell this story to show what was happening in Mexico, because it's really happening all over the world. They're just the tip of the iceberg.

Your film puts a lot of the blame on soda and processed food manufacturers, especially from the U.S., and Coca-Cola in particular. How did those industries get into Mexico and become so prevalent?

Well, there are a couple of ways. Coke has been in there for an awfully long time, since the 40s, pretty heavily. But also, I think NAFTA, the passage of the free trade agreement, also opened the doors for a huge influx of processed foods from our country into theirs.

As this film has been out, have you gotten any pushback from the soda and processed food industries?

Well, we really haven't gotten any direct pushback yet. I expect it will come. But, you know, we have gone through extensive fact-checking through our attorneys, and we certainly are presenting a very fair case to them. So there's really not much they can do about it.

And did that include reaching out to Coca-Cola for comment?

No, we didn't. We let their own executives and archival footage about their strategy sort of speak for themselves.

The film culminates with covering the passage of Mexico's soda tax, which I believe was in 2014. Is that right?

Right, it passed in 2013 and it went into effect in 2014.

In the years since then, has that made a noticeable impact, having that soda tax in place, on consumption of sugary drinks and the rate of diabetes in Mexico?

It did have a very significant effect. They are seeing less soda consumption and more water consumption. So it is definitely helping. It's sort of what we're talking about now with the current pandemic. What you're trying to do is sort of flatten the curve. The disease was spiking, and now they're sort of just trying to arrest it and then bring the rates down.

This, of course, is not a problem that is exclusive to Mexico. Obviously, it's pretty acute — sugar consumption and Type 2 diabetes. Why is this something that Vermonters should be concerned about?

One of the reasons I wanted to make the film is so that people could really understand this link between nutrition and Type 2 diabetes. It's largely a preventable disease. And so I think if people understood that their choices that they're making everyday with their food and beverage would possibly lead to a lifelong chronic disease, they may think twice about it.

So I think for me, making the film, I just wanted people to really understand that and present this film in a very visual way so that it would sort of sink in, and they would think about it as they were reaching for a beverage and trying to decide what to drink.

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