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John Doyle: Brace yourself – two shocking docs about animals and food

Two challenging documentaries are the highlight this weekend. That is, they challenge accepted views. One is about animals and the other is about food. Both are a bit controversial and both are bound to enrage some viewers.

First, the doc about animals – you can't beat the threat of lawsuits and thundering denunciations from politicians to make a documentary a hot property.

Sled Dogs: The Cold Truth About Man's Best Friend (Sunday, documentary Channel, 9 p.m.) has made a lot of people very angry. Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell went so far as to complain to the Canada Media Fund (CMF), which helped fund it, claiming that the filmmakers involved had conned everyone into getting funding. Or something. Anyway, he was very angry.

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There have been threatened lawsuits, too. Against the filmmakers and against the Whistler Film Festival, where it screened. And the film seems to have helped convince Wells Fargo, a long-time sponsor of Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, to end its support.

One can see why there's a fuss. It's a superb work, beautifully made and sharp as a poke in your eye. People are interviewed and say things that are plainly contradicted by their own actions and by others. Also, it's a moving, poignant film about dogs. And it is an award winner for the skill shown in it.

It's about commercial sled-dog operations and the Iditarod Race. It's about what some dog mushers do. It's about the image and the reality. There are four components to it. It profiles an Iditarod musher and how he trains and treats his dogs. "I just want my dogs to be happy and successful," he says at one point.

There is also a segment about a sled-dog operation in Ontario and a frankly horrifying section about the abuse of dogs at a Colorado dog lot. And then there is a section about the notorious slaughter of 43 sled dogs in Whistler, B.C., when the local tourist industry catering to people who wanted sled-dog tours suffered a sharp decline.

The filmmakers – it is directed by Fern Levitt – have responded to the controversy surrounding the film by asking everyone who condemns it to watch it first. Some who have attacked the film haven't seen it at all. What viewers see is the way in which sled dogs are celebrated and how both the Iditarod Race and the winter tourism industry present the dogs as strong and devoted, and much-loved by the mushers.

Then there is stark evidence of how the dogs are treated, day to day, and what happens to them when the seasons change and the animals are made redundant. Mostly, it seems, they are chained 24/7, poorly fed and many are in obvious distress.

You can make up your own mind about whether what's shown is terrible cruelty or simply pragmatism. What's certain is you will never feel quite as cozy and romantic about travelling by dog sled ever again.

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Also airing this weekend

Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth (Sunday, CBC News Network, 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) is a rather heavy-handed but necessary and skeptical look at the fad of what's often called "eating clean."

The upmarket diet ideology has been endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow and there are many food bloggers who promote it relentlessly.

Usually, it's all about erasing processed food from a diet and avoiding gluten, dairy and excess sugar. But there is also an anti-grain component to it and a big part of the fad is eating small portions about five or six times a day.

As with most eating fads, it all sounds peachy and anchored in truth. The main proponents of eating clean have written bestselling books or make a good living through social media. What happens in the program, made for the BBC, is that Dr. Giles Yeo, a biochemist at the University of Cambridge, examines the science behind it all.

"If you're going to give extreme diet advice, you've got to have proof," he says. Over the course of the program he finds almost no proof at all. In fact, his summary conclusion is that a good part of the eating-clean movement is, "anti-intellectual, anti-fact, anti-evidence based and a very troubling narrative."

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