A Touch of Sugar is thoroughly engaging and well-paced film that explores and examines the many social factors contribute to our society’s mismanagement of diabetes, both individually and structurally. The film told through the eyes of patients, who are struggling with diabetes brings the chilling number to light, and highlights the fact that diabetes is an urgent public health issue that can no longer be ignored.
A Touch of Sugar opens with Shenekqual Robertson-Carter who ignored the disease until her health and the devasting effects not talking about it had on her family, particularly her son. We then meet Stewart Perry, had a heart attack took us on his journey from insurance salesman to calling for change on Capitol Hill. Niurka Rodriguez journey shows a woman who is trying to educate herself and educate her family at the same time, so they don’t fall victim to the same disease. Susie Katona was recently diagnosed and still searches for education and resources to live her best life despite immense obstacles to the proper resources. Their stories collectively paint an alarming picture of a nationwide epidemic that is systematically being allowed to grow in silence and the things we can do, collectively, to stop this epidemic in its tracks.
We caught up Viola Davis, who narrates the film, as well as the team behind the film, director Ani Simon-Kennedy, cinematographer Cailin Yatsko, and Producer Kerry Girvin, to discuss the various barriers (e.g., early diagnosis, access to care, food deserts, stigma, and feelings of personal shame) that people suffering from diabetes often encounter when trying to manage the disease:
Congratulations on a spectacular film, it really was an eye-opener. If I can ask, what drew you to the film? Was there a personal connection?
My aunt had both her legs amputated due to complications from diabetes and my sisters suffer from diabetes. I find out I was pre-diabetic by taking my A1C test. You take 4 times a year to monitor and make sure you never turn Type 2 diabetic. So, for me, diabetes is front and center in my family. I see the epidemic first hand.
I got involved because I have family history of diabetes. My mother has it, my grandfather had it. My mom was pre-diabetic for ten years, then it turned to diabetes. So, it was always something I heard about growing up, but even then, I didn’t know what it was, and I never really learned my family history in terms of making sure I wouldn’t suffer from it. After making this film I realized it wasn’t just my family. That diabetes touches so many people but so few people know about.
How important is it to get your A1C’s taken, to see if you are in a pre-diabetic state?
It’s extremely important! I learned in filming this documentary that with diet and exercise, you can heal yourself from the pre-diabetic state. That a lot of it is reversible. We wanted to show it’s not a death sentence. There is so much you can do. A lot is knowledge and education.
It is paramount. Knowing what the battle is. When anyone is diagnosed pre-diabetes, you must stay vigilant, you must become a warrior. You must tackle the condition like a warrior to make sure it doesn’t turn to Type II diabetes. It’s reminds me about some advice I got years ago about marriage. They said, “When you’re on automatic you’re not in your marriage”. Same can be said about diabetes. When you’re on automatic you’re not in your health. You need to find ways to focus on your health and staying well.
A constant theme in the stories told in” A Touch of Sugar is a stigma every feel when they are diagnosed that seems to affect their ability to stay vigilant and secure resources to combat disease. Can you describe that stigma?
A lot comes from feeling like you must come up with the resources and the answers alone.
Exactly! A lot of times there is so much shame and guilt attached to diabetes. A sort of “You did it to yourself “mentality that people with diabetes often encounter. With this project, we wanted push past that and shine a light on the subject. To erase that shame. People need to know this isn’t their fault and that they are up against huge barriers. The larger system is not set up to address the problems and barriers that lead to diabetes.
The stigma of silence and lack of education. When people say they have cancer they talk about it. A normal human being would want to discuss it and connect. But with diabetes, it’s just not discussed. People feel ashamed about it.
How can we lift the stigma?
To talk about it. Just talk about it. 30 million people are living with Type II diabetes and there are 84 million adults living with prediabetes and most don’t know it. That’s not including children and Type I diabetes. So, a huge part of the stigma is that nobody talks about it. They suffer alone. I think that a lot comes from feeling like you must come up with the resources and the answers alone.
And we need to create a connection. That same way we created a connection to others via the #metoo movement and sexual assault awareness. We stood up and said, “Me too, I’m going through it to!”. It creates a connection and connection creates a revolution.
We are at a crisis point here! We have 324 million people in this country, I gave you the numbers so it’s roughly more than 50% of the US affected by this disease. We must collectively find a way to get the help we need. To advocate for ourselves and each other.
Yes, we must talk about it. When my mom was diagnosed 25 years ago, I was like “Why are we talking about it, why are you being so dramatic?” And that was completely the wrong reaction. But I had to learn about the disease because no one ever talks about it on a large scale. Thankfully I came to a much better place of understanding and I was able to give my mom the support she needed to fight this disease.
Why do you think no one ever talks about it?
I think the biggest issue is that no one ever dies of diabetes. They die of complications to diabetes. Plus, people with diabetes don’t look sick. It’s super easy to hide and people try to manage it in secret because of the stigma. And so, there is this narrative “You have it, you are fine”.
You mentioned focusing on ways to stay well. Resources, when trying the affect anything in this world play a huge role. In working on this film, what are the resources that you’ve learned people diagnosed with diabetes often lack? And how does it affect them?
Access to healthcare. Blood doesn’t lie. When you are pre-diabetic, there’s things you can do to reverse it. But you need access to healthcare for that and education because diabetes is not the same for everyone. For some people, it’s genetic, others it’s access to healthy food and exercise, and even if the healthy food is around you many don’t understand how food works.
And knowing there is a problem with the system. Fresh food is expensive, and many people live in food deserts. Sometimes exercise isn’t as easy as going for a walk if where you live isn’t particularly safe or you work crazy hours, or you are the sole provider for your family. Sometimes its not having supportive health care-providers that have empathy toward your situation and help you look for feasible solutions.
Also, people need to learn how to advocate to state representatives because power concedes nothing without a demand. You don’t demand it, you don’t challenge it, then you get no answers. We need to challenge the status quo and demand they give it the same attention and resources to diabetes that we give heart disease and cancer!
What was the most surprising thing you learned when educating yourself about diabetes?
My “aha!” moment was when I learned the numbers. It truly is a crisis. You know, this crisis, at least the way we are dealing with it as a country, has a lot of parallels to the “Hungeris” campaign I am also involved in. Hungeris dealt with food insecurity and the numbers are staggering and people suffer in silence. Whole families are affected, and they all suffer in silence. It’s an epidemic, just like diabetes and both epidemics are growing in silence.
I learned throughout the course of filming that pre-diabetes can be reversed, through diet and exercise. It does not have to be a life sentence. It is not an automatic death sentence. Get your A1C to a better place through knowledge and education.
Thank you for your time ladies and congratulations on such a tremendous film. I know I will be getting my A1C’s checked and will encourage everyone else I know to do the same.
A Touch of Sugar stars Actress Viola Davis (Narrator), Writer/Director: Ani Simon-Kennedy, Cinematographer: Cailin Yatsko, Executive Producer, Merck: Conrod Kelly, Producer , Shenekqual Robertson-Carter (Patient Subject), Stewart Perry (Patient Subject), Dr. Elena Rios (Film Subject), Dr. Tamara McGregor (Film Subject), Susie Katona (Patient Subject), Nikura Rikura Rodriguez (Patient Subject).
The film was produced by Merck. Check out the film’s website www.atouchofsugarfilm.com.