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‘Black Gold’

The black gold of this new documentary isn’t oil. It’s coffee. British filmmaking brothers Marc and Nick Francis have fashioned a gripping work about this most precious of commodities, and they’ve done so by tracing and contrasting how coffee is produced and consumed.

Shot over three years in Ethiopia, London, Seattle and Cancun, the Francis brothers tell their story through the eyes of Tadesse Meskela, head of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Ethiopia.

 

We meet Tadesse early, right after coffee connoisseurs slurp their spoonfuls in a grave taste test at the International Cupping Competition.

 

But Tadesse isn’t playing games. He’s at the coffee export center in Addis Ababa, inspecting coffee and bemoaning the 30-year-low prices his farmers are getting for quality coffee beans. Some 15 million Ethiopians depend on coffee in some way for their survival, and even though Tadesse directly represents only a fraction of that number, he feels the weight of human need.

 

As Tadesse’s wife says, “He really loves his farmers.” It shows as he visits their villages. One such trip yields perhaps the best scene of the documentary as Tadesse gathers a group of coffee farmers and asks them how much they think people in the West pay for a single cup of coffee.

 

They don’t know.

 

He tells them.

 

They do the math, comparing what Westerners are willing to pay with how much they themselves receive per kilo.

 

A quiet disbelief hangs on their faces, and then we’re swiftly taken to New York, where folks enjoy their grande caffe lattes at Starbucks. The visual and economic contrast is startling.

 

The documentary’s brilliance lies mainly in these well-placed cuts and contrasts between producer and consumer and the cultures surrounding each. We’re taken from Tadesse and his farmers to New York and its coffee drinkers. We go from Seattle Starbucks managers talking about how the company cares for people to the region in Ethiopia where Starbucks buys its coffee.

 

We see men screaming numbers at the New York Board of Trade—where the international price of coffee is established—and then cut to men in Ethiopia going about their business. We watch women workers monotonously sorting good beans from bad for about 50 cents a day; then we’re treated to the World Barista Championship in Seattle, which just seems silly by juxtaposition.

 

These contrasts, especially the last one, hint at the tragic disconnect between production and consumption—between people who labor for pennies, and those who enjoy fruits of that labor but care not about origins, processes, justice.

 

This disconnect is both a gap in knowledge and a chain of buyers. At a government coffee auction populated by middlemen for the coffee multinationals, Tadesse tells us there are six chains in the process of getting coffee from farmers to consumers. His cooperative, however, eliminates about 60 percent of that and brings producers closer to consumers. That results in better wages for the farmers.

 

Making the case for why better wages are needed, “Black Gold” devotes a couple of scenes to Ethiopian schools on the verge of closing for lack of funds, as well as locals visiting the “therapeutic feeding center” hoping to get their children more and better nourishment.

 

Until trade becomes fairer for these farmers, some turn to growing chat, a narcotic, which pays better at market. Others wait for aid trucks, but bemoan the hand-out. They want trade, not aid, they say.

 

Meanwhile, Tadesse travels to London, looking for new buyers and markets for his farmers. He visits a grocery there to see if Ethiopian coffees are on shelves. Finding none, he says, “I am very sad because it reminds me of my farmers.”

 

The filmmakers toss factoids between sequences: 2 billion cups of coffee are drunk globally each day; since 1990, retail sales of coffee have grown from $30 billion to $80 billion; the four main companies dealing in coffee are Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee (all of which declined to have a representative interviewed for the film).

 

Near film’s end, the Francis brothers emphasize this fact: Africa now depends on more emergency aid than ever for its survival. Having included the collapse of talks at the World Trade Organization in Cancun in 2004, the filmmakers touch on the lack of subsidies for African coffee growers and how crippling trade bends to aid.

 

“Black Gold” might be hard to find in theaters for a while, but it’s worth the hunt. This film, made with a grant from the Sundance Institute and supported by Christian Aid in the UK, is every bit as powerful as “Born into Brothels,” which won the 2005 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary.

 

Marc and Nick Francis splendidly contrast the cultures of production and consumption, and in this juxtaposition they deliver the real meaning of the film: Our world is unjust, and we help make it so.

 

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

 

MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer’s Note: Nothing objectionable.

Producers-Directors: Marc Francis and Nick Francis

Cast: Tadesse Meskela

 

The movie’s official Web site is here.

 

Check out the Baptist Center for Ethics’ new DVD, Always … Therefore: The Church’s Challenge of Global Poverty.