This past January, the Sundance Film Festival brought a powerful slate of documentaries to Park City, Utah, many of which explored social and political issues. Over 50 non-fiction shorts and features were screened in all. Two of the buzzed-about feature documentaries tackled global issues: coffee and war.

Black Gold

“Black Gold” is the story of the pitfalls of globalization as told through the lens of the coffee trade. It’s also the story about the love of coffee – and how coffee lovers can be far removed from the labours of their love.

The film is set in Ethiopia and follows the coffee bean from the fields to retail outlets like Starbucks in New York City. Nowhere, say the filmmakers, are the effects of corporate profiteering more devastating than in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, “where the livelihoods of over 25 million coffee growers have been ruined.”

There’s a hero in this story of economic exploitation. His name is Tadesse Meskela and he’s on a mission to bring fair trade practices and wages to the 70,000 farmers he represents through the Oromo Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union based in Ethiopia. “Black Gold’s” narrative is structured around Tadesse as he travels to marketplaces from Europe to Seattle in an attempt to secure an equitable price for his farmer’s labour. As Tadesse’s journey unfolds, the Francis brothers fill in the players in this multibillion-dollar industry with stops at a World Trade Organization meeting (in Cancun, Mexico) and the New York Board of Trade (coffee is the second most actively traded commodity behind oil). The filmmakers round out the complicated world of coffee with visits to places like sweatshop production lines, auction houses, roasting plants, and the first Starbucks coffee shop ever.

The facts presented by the filmmakers are hard to ignore: as consumers guzzle coffee at a rate of two billion cups per day, boosting retail sales to 80 billion dollars a year (up from thirty billion dollars in 1990), income for farmers has fallen to a 30-year low. Out of desperation to feed their families and provide basic needs, farmers are abandoning coffee fields at an increasing rate to grow the narcotic ‘chat’, instead. Never has Africa been more dependent on foreign aid: over seven million Ethiopians are lining up to receive emergency food aid every year; four multinational corporations dominate the industry; a typical three-dollar cup of non-fair-trade coffee returns farmers only a few cents.

06gold-600“Black Gold” is deftly crafted. Juxtapositions of contrasting segments and points of view create lasting resonance. There’s the cut from an interview with an Ethiopian school principal concerned about his school’s collapse due to lack of funding to a Starbuck’s worker brimming with genuine glee about connecting people through cups of coffee; and there’s the cut from the women making 50 cents a day separating out poor quality beans in a sweatshop in Ethiopia to the World Barista Competition in Seattle where tensions are at an all-time high to produce an award-winning cappuccino.

Perhaps the most sobering shot is of an emaciated child, suffering from starvation, hanging in a sack from a scale as her body weight is measured (at a therapeutic feeding centre in Sidama, the region supplying Starbucks coffee). The filmmakers smartly show restraint in this segment; cutting from the image of the child to a scale weighing coffee beans would be overkill.

“Black Gold” is beautifully shot, with bright colours native to Ethiopian culture offering an aesthetically pleasing backdrop to the often depressing exposition. At times the film is even meditative: a Philip Glass/Koyaanisqatsi-like soundtrack by Andreas Kapsalis accompanies mechanized images, such as assembly lines of canisters being filled with coffee, which, interestingly, you can even almost smell.

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