The inimitable power of the big screen

'Super Size Me' has achieved more for the anti-globalisers than any number of McLibel challenges
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If I were Morgan Spurlock, I'd be quite pleased with myself. His documentary illustrating the poverty of a diet of food from McDonald's, Super Size Me, appears to be stopping the advance of super-size everything. McDonald's itself caved in pretty early on to the pressures brought to bear when the film, showing a healthy young Spurlock growing overweight and damaging his vital body functions during a month of McDonald's munching, first began screening in the United States. It has already stopped offering super-size portions in the US and plans to phase them out in Britain by the end of the year.

Now, other international corporations are following in the wake of McDonald's. The food industry in Britain claims that its Manifesto for Food and Health, which calls for a voluntary ban on super-size chocolate bars, is a response to its concerns about obesity. We all know instead that it's a response to fears that if it doesn't put its own house in order, then the Government will. The manifesto promises to tackle not just big portions, but also fat, sugar and salt levels in processed food, tighter controls on advertising and on the sale of sugary foods and drinks in schools.

All this and more is on the agenda of the Commons Health Committee. But whether all this will come to much remains to be seen. For, while super-size portions have played a part in promoting obesity, at least one young man on the radio was insisting yesterday that if he couldn't get a super-size Mars bar, then he'd just buy two. What can be done in the face of such intransigently poor diet? Introducing laws which ban selling any more than a certain number of chocolate biscuits as if they were paracetamol?

Certainly, the young man in question is not likely to be acting out of a lack of knowledge. Surely there are few people who do not know, even though they refuse to believe it, that chocolate bars are fattening and unhealthy. What the Spurlock approach seems to do though, is to get through to people at a personal level that they are not the exception. Eating a poor diet does have an immediate and detrimental effect on one's health.

Likewise, the Spurlock approach is what appears to have galvanised the multinationals into action after years of pressure. The measures promised yesterday by the food and drink industry would very likely have come anyway. But it is still interesting to note that reportage on the issue has focused on super-sizing so strongly. Morgan Spurlock may not be directly responsible for the jitters the British food and drinks industry is experiencing. But he can take a great deal of credit for directing the focus of the public debate.

Spurlock's intention in making the film was, of course, to confront and embarrass the powers-that-be at McDonald's. There can be no doubt that he has borrowed his samizdat style from his fellow-countryman, Michael Moore. The latter is at present busily screening his film Fahrenheit 9/11 to as much of America as he can, keen not only to help confound George Bush's second stab at the presidency, but to be seen to do so. The more world-weary among us might sigh and wonder if it would not have been a safer bet to come up with a more convincing candidate than John Kerry. But that is hardly within the remit of film-makers.

Do a couple of campaigning-as-they're-entertaining movies form a trend? Or have we simply seen this year a coincidence that has seen a lot of documentaries gaining a worldwide cinematic release. Neither Capturing the Friedmans nor Knowing My Father, both laudable projects, had a political message. But both did have a lot to say about the family, which is itself a hot topic for controversial debate at the moment. Perhaps the didactic documentary really is coming back into fashion, muscling its way into the cinema as it gets shoved off the telly, and finding a bigger, higher, more dizzying stage to shout from.

Maybe the emergence of documentaries at the cinema in such abundance is simply a fad, one which - like other fads that come and go - will quickly find itself buried under a heap of cannibalistic material as the studios start milking the formula.

Or maybe, against all the odds, it is going to be cinema and not television that really starts to be an instrument of socially inclusive democratic debate. The possibility makes sense. It is not true to say that the tradition of fine television documentary is over. Yes, the advent of reality television has meant that many programmes that are almost unrecognisable as documentaries are classified as such. But on the hundreds of cable channels excellent documentaries are being made and watched. Each week on the terrestrial channels too, documentaries of immense watchability are being screened.

The trouble is that they are not media events. They are made and they find an audience - a modest one admittedly. But what they don't receive is coverage, the visibility that gets them talked about, then gets them viewed some more. The best that many of them can hope for, in terms of publicity, is a "pick of the day" on the listings pages, with a matchboxed-sized photograph to entice in the visually literate browser.

Everyone talks about how significant was the screening of Cathy Come Home, the documentary that resulted in the homeless charity Shelter being launched. The film is talked about as if it were a mythical event that can no longer be repeated. But it is possible that by transferring to the large screen some of the most audience-appealling of documentaries, the ability to promote widespread debate around them will be generated.

This has happened throughout Michael Moore's career - although Moore's track record on gathering publicity is far stronger than his track record on achieving a change in legislation. And whatever might be said about the perfect timing of Spurlock's documentary, it has definitely achieved more for the anti-globalisers' cause than any number of McDonald's-smashing MayDay riots, or any number of David-and-Goliath-style McLibel challenges ever managed to.

It will be interesting to see whether, in the wake of Spurlock's success, other documentary makers are beginning to feel that they are being welcomed more warmly by the big distributors. So far, the hallmarks of the genre have included a kind of gonzo journalistic style, married with a very specific political message. The technique seems to encapsulate the way the political debate has been moving, with single-issue campaigns shunting party politics aside, and nothing at all being doable without a single personality to provide a focus and a narrative.

Can these tragi-comic pleas become a staple of our cinemas, perhaps even replacing the old B-movie or newsreel as a much-missed accompaniment to a feature movie? It would be rather nice to think so.