Running time: 13m 4s
Source film: 16mm; color; sound
Director: Winifred Holmes
Production: Verity Films; Oswalk Skilbeck; Film Producers Guild; Film Centre International Ltd; British Life Assurance Trust for Health Education; British Medical Association
Writer: Winifred Holmes
Photography: Jonah Jones
Editor: Anthony Ham
Nutritional guides have been prone to wild fluctuations and rearrangements over the past several decades, vary sharply by country, and have been influenced by everything from scientific studies and wartime rationing to the agriculture industry and food prices. Thank goodness for 1968’s A Cruel Kindness, then, which makes such a guide as basic as can be. According to writer/director Winifred Holmes’s film, the three food groups are carbohydrates (“energy”), fat (“warmth), and protein (“for growth”). And sometimes, small quantities of vitamins. The filmmakers make no effort to explain what benefits this last group provides, likely because no documentary team wants to bore viewers with a discussion about watercress. We get it — it’s really good for you! Enough already, watercress. You’re almost as insufferable as kale.
To arrive at a serious discussion about how good parenting must include well-balanced meals at home, the documentary sets the table (!) with three interweaving stories of adolescents who are showing indications of poor nutrition. Ronny Brown and Jimmy Grant are each about nine stone (126 pounds in the American system) and have mothers who show their love with “good, filling meals” of rich food on a seemingly daily basis. Not all of the kids depicted in the film get the same treatment, however. Valerie Smith is an unhappy 11-year-old girl who comes from a broken home with an absent father and a thin mother who mocks her for emotional eating and for growing out of her clothes. To really rub it in, Holmes then conjures up a genderized doomsday scenario in describing that “without help, she’ll be handicapped for life.” Fast-forward to the window-shopping scene where an adult Valerie ponders an “outsized” dress, the party scene where no one wants to dance with her, and the pool scene where she can’t bear to appear in public in swimwear. The worst body-shaming treatment the lads get is Jimmy’s father matter-of-factly telling his wife that their son is fat (Jimmy is present), and a brief scene showing Mr. Brown breathing heavily while climbing some stairs. While Mrs. Brown refuses to believe that her son’s weight is anything but the result of genetics, and Valerie is presumably left to suffer under the psychological torment of her horrid mother, Mrs. Grant takes Jimmy to a school-ordered doctor’s appointment to discuss countermeasures.
The film takes the perspective that nutritional habits, good or bad, start in the home, and it shifts every bit of sweet, greasy, and delicious blame to parents who overfeed their children. The narration between scenes is delivered by the same on-screen doctor who treats Jimmy and while she’s rather non-judgmental during the appointment, she takes the gloves off when narrating the scenes of the Brown family, at one point referring to Mrs. Brown as a “fat, breathless woman.” I was a bit taken aback by the brash tone throughout, and I expected the foundation for the film’s conclusions to use an occasional medical term or study citation considering the British Medical Association helped produce it. There’s not much style to the film beyond a couple of dissolves and the shots are largely static. There’s no music, barely a smile, and almost no fun on-screen because nutrition is serious business.
- A Cruel Kindness (British Film Institute record)
- Obesity and public health campaigning (by Natalie Harrison, The Lancet)
- Childhood Obesity: A Cruel Kindness (healthhabits.ca)
- Cruel Kindness (London Screen Archives)
- Winifred Holmes (Bear Alley)