Washing powder, plastic jugs, pants, shirts, nails and chocolate. All familiar items – with no immediate common denominator other than being everyday items many of us are in close contact with daily, in one form or another. But, do we really know from where they originate? Do you know where the shirt you are wearing was manufactured and where the cotton it is made from was picked? Did you check whether the people who made your shirt, and who were involved in every production stage, were living under acceptable working conditions? That they were paid and did not suffering maltreatment?
Most likely, you do not know any of this, nor are you doing anything about it. Or, if you actually do know, you are one of a very, very select few consumers who research the origin of items. But, even if you know that the shirt originates from Bangladesh, perhaps even the factory where it was made, even the most intrepid contemporary archaeologist would not be unable to dig up information on who exactly made the shirt. Or that person’s working conditions.
Slavery and confectionery. Think back to the last time you ate chocolate. Do you even remember? When was it, where were you, what did you pay? Did you enjoy the flavour and how long did it take you to consume the sweets? Many will not be able to put a location or time on such consumption: it enters the body fast and exits the head again just as quickly. However, if you do actually recall it, we could ask: did you consider whether someone else’s suffering could be hiding behind your own, brief enjoyment? If you did not, you ought to watch The Chocolate Case. In 2002, Dutch journalist Teun van de Keuken, film maker Maurice Dekkers and TV-producer and reporter Roland Duong happened to find a small newspaper notice, stating that children are used as slaves in chocolate manufacturing. They were surprised that this news was allocated such small amount of space in the paper, and decided to investigate. Why was this not big news across the line? Surely, it was not correct? But, they did not need to investigate long before realising that indeed it was all true – and much more extensive than the newspaper space given to the notice.
Accountability. However, more than this happens. Teun van de Keuken wants to do something about the horrors and decides to contact human rights lawyer Michiel Pestman. Together they plan to report van de Keuken for accessory to child labour. Because, as the lawyer argues, if you know that children are used as slaves in the manufacturing of a product, you have to shoulder some of the responsibility if you despite this knowledge continue to still enjoy these sweets. The situation is very interesting: not only does it show how an everyday sweet turns out to be the result of slavery and maltreatment, but simultaneously also a small piece in the systematic suppression of hundreds of children – pretending to be an enjoyment, an innocent tasting experience. When van de Kauken is made to be responsible, a precedent is set, which in principle can penalise other consumers too, if he is. Or, if this does not happen, at least chocolate-consumption will be accompanied by the knowledge that child slaves have contributed to its sweet flavour. Making the sweets taste anything but. However, the problem was that in order to bring about a trial – one of the slaves involved had to be a witness.
A catalogue of suffering. Thus, van de Keuken travels to Africa to meet people who have worked for Western chocolate interests and sweet teeth. What he uncovers is not only shocking, because not only are they slaves, they are constantly in danger of being killed, if they refuse to abide. If you protect one of the others, you might disappear in the night. This creates an environment which opposes any form of alliance creation and solidarity among those suppressed. Big brands such as Nestle get their chocolate from African countries which use children as slave labour. In The Chocolate Case, we are introduced to some of the slaves’ stories: it works to catalogue their sufferings. A moment of enjoyment is connected to a brutal world populated by suffering children, who may die: one by one they face the camera and give a face to this invisible part of confectionary production which you will remember for a very long time. They blame you, because you are not aware – and because you never tried to find out who they are. But now you know.
An experiment in empathy. The film is a unique experiment in empathy and solidarity. Even if one person is unable to change the world through such an attempt to make oneself accountable, the visibility will serve as an example to capture other people’s attention. Watching this film, we will not only wonder who made the chocolate we are eating, but perhaps also spare a thought for the backstories of other product types. How much recognition that occurs will naturally vary from person to person. But, the type of thinking space created by The Chocolate Case imposes responsibility on us all, to investigate what we participate in, even when we buy the most trivial of items. I will not reveal what happens to van de Keuken and the more conscientious type of chocolate, but we witness an impressive journey in solidarity.
What we can do. The problem associated with many of the items we purchase and consume, is that they are considered objects without a history. As if they appeared out of nowhere. We know this is not the case, but shop as if it is, because we rarely (if ever) investigate further. Thus we contribute to the suppression, which may be hiding below the innocent surface. Mine – and the film’s – point is that we constantly surround ourselves with numerous objects and copious amounts of material, every single day. We do not know anything about these, apart from the daily tasks they perform for us. Even if we do not know what crimes that hide in the objects’ pre-history, and perhaps may never know, by taking an interest in where things come from will make us more conscious consumers. Not only because this will enable us to participate in the various parts of the productions process, but also because it will afford us an insight into the global cycle of labour and goods, and how this can be exploitative and inhuman.
The most important thing this film can teach us, is to conduct similar research ourselves: when shopping, ask where items are produced. Ask about their origins. Enquire whether it may have been manufactured by forced labour. If this is uncertain, opt for another product. We can all do something in our daily lives, and if we start small we will achieve great things.