Interview: Sonya Pemberton

Vitamania at The Mullumbimby Civic hall

To take or not to take… the question about vitamins

Mullumbimby Civic Hall | Wednesday 8 August | 7pm | $17-22

Vitamania is the latest documentary release by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Sonya Pemberton. She is passionate about science, and unafraid of controversy. Pemberton’s previous offerings have sparked much conversation and debate with Jabbed – Love, Fear and Vaccines seeing her having to don a bulletproof vest for the US screenings.

‘I take on the contentious subjects because they are the conversations of our time,’ says Pemberton. ‘I only have a certain number of films I can make.’

While Sonya’s 2015 release was Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail she remarked that this documentary on vitamins and the vitamin industry was more controversial and required rigorous research.

‘This is the most heavily fact-checked script I have had; in fact there are more pages of fact script then there are of script.’

Vitamania is presented by scientist and YouTube star Dr Derek Muller, who investigates why if vitamins are curative or lethal then why in this risk-averse climate can consumers still buy them without consultation?

‘Derek allows an audience a different way into the material,’ says Sonya. ‘Rather than a lecture, or the voice of god, he is on journey. He realises vitamins are full of wonder and excitement, and we have conflated them with the idea of being pills, but that’s not what they really are. Vitamins themselves and the role they play in human health are astonishing.’

Sonya’s interest in the topic was sparked in the creation of her feature on vaccination.

The idea for Vitamania evolved during the production of our previous SBS feature documentary Jabbed – love, fear and vaccines. While filming I met many people who identified as being vaccine hesitant; they perceived little benefit and significant risk, so they refused or delayed vaccination. These same people often said they ‘took vitamins’ and often gave them to their children because, despite not knowing what vitamins were, where they came from, how they were made and regulated, they perceived significant benefit and no risk. Zero. Zilch.

‘When we started investigating vitamins, what became interesting was that I had forgotten how powerful they are. I had this mindset about should you take them or not, looking at the for and against, and I had lost sight of how powerful they are and how they can transform people’s lives.’

Vitamamia explores the idea of deficiency and how doctors recognise it and address it. ‘In the end the film is a journey back to food and what’s in it. They can’t replicate everything that is in food in a pill. We go to NASA and show how the vitamins in your food are constructed and what is in your vitamin pill. A single apple has 1,700 chemicals all involved in nutrition. We can’t even pretend to know everything that is in an apple and how it works.’

Sonya believes that science bias often means people are suspicious of the word chemical and that ‘chemical’ is synonymous with unhealthy or harmful.

Chemical is not a dirty word,’ she says. ‘Vitamins are chemical compounds essential to life. When you create pills you are replicating those chemicals.’

However the real issue with vitamins is the lack of proper regulation on how they are made and what is in them.

‘The vast majority of vitamins are made in China. The stuff in the pills is not as simple as juicing an orange; these are complex active compounds.

‘In the film we go on a massive journey to show you the story behind that question. There is no simple answer; you have to embrace complexity and nuance. Every year hundreds of thousands of children’s lives are saved in developing countries from vitamin A.’

The film also looks at the creation of the vitamin industry and how it has grown. ‘When they deregulated vitamins as a medicine we went from 4,000 products on the market to 80,000. They lowered the bar and the market exploded.’

While looking at benefits Vitamania also explores some of the product consumption dangers.

‘Some vitamin products have serious risks,’ says Sonya. ‘For instance Vitamin A and smoking is a bad combination. This film is really a big-picture overview that allows you to understand vitamin use and highlights the real benefits and the real risks. I have spent nearly three years talking to world experts to get a really big solid underpinning of what vitamins are so you can make your decision whether you like or loathe them.’

Pemberton insists that genuine scientific enquiry on the subject shows that it’s not a simple conclusion of ‘Yes, Vitamins are good – take them, or No, they’re dangerous – don’t.’

‘Vitamins need to be treated seriously. They are powerful chemicals and they do have an effect so you need to be really informed about what they are and where they come from.

Vitamania will be screening at Mullum Civic Hall ahead of its SBS broadcast (12 August) followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.

Tickets are available from

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