Black Gold (2006)

Alternating between shots of beautiful landscapes and starving children, the movie follows the work of Tadesse Meskela, even-tempered, charismatic representative of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union.

Black Gold

Director: Nick Francis
Cast: Tadesse Meskela, Dr. Ernesto Illy
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: California Newsreel
Display Artist: Marc Francis, Nick Francis
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-10-06 (Limited release)

In 2003, the World Trade Organization met in Cancun to discuss the future rules for global trade. As introduced in the documentary Black Gold, this fifth Ministerial Conference began with workers smoothing sand on the beaches and ended as most observers expected. The powerful nations and organizations got what they wanted, and smaller entities -- say, African nations who can send only two or three representatives to negotiate with England's 650 -- did not. What those developing nations wanted, says Hon. Sam Mpasu MP, Minister of Commerce and Industry for Malawi, is fair treatment. "We would like the world trading system to be able to help us stand on our own feet, so that aid is unnecessary," Mpasu says, "Trade is more important to us than aid."

Directed by British filmmakers Marc and Nick Francis, Black Gold looks at the relationship between coffee growers and coffee drinkers, as it is shaped by multiple "chains" of middlemen. Alternating between shots of beautiful landscapes and starving children, the movie follows the work of Tadesse Meskela, even-tempered, charismatic representative of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union. That is, he represents some 74 southern Ethiopian co-ops and more than 70,000 farmers (67% of Ethiopia's foreign trade is in coffee, such that fluctuating prices affect most of its 15 million citizens). Earnest and dedicated, he explains each step of his travels, as he seeks fairness for the farmers.

Meskela first appears in Black Gold with the camera behind him, following his trek through a warehouse filled with burlap sacks of beans. As he checks the product and talks with workers, Meskela laments the poverty all around him. Cut to New York City, where sidewalks teem with consumers clutching gigantic Starbucks cups. "Globally," you read in an intertitle, "Two billion cups of coffee are drunk every day." The visual juxtaposition marks the film's primary contention, that coffee farmers suffer while so-called First World drinkers have no idea of the effects of their morning rituals. (Starbucks, according to the filmmakers' blog, has circulated an email among employees that terms the film "inaccurate and incomplete" for not explaining how Starbucks purchases coffee and not providing solutions to the problems it cites.)

The movie reports that, between 2001 and 2003, the price for coffee hit a 30-year low. While farmers are paid mere pennies for kilos, exporters, roasters, and other companies involved in the manufacturing and sales process make billions of dollars. (The industry's worth is estimated at $80 billion.) "We would soar above the sky," says one grower, "if we could get 10 bir [57 cents] for a kilo of coffee." Currently making closer to one bir per kilo, he sighs. "That would change our lives beyond recognition."

Meskela suggests that the farmers need to be making more like 10 times the current price. But as the costs, prices, and rules for trade are set by the WTO, the advantage tends to go to the four multinationals who dominate the world coffee market, Kraft, Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble, and Sara Lee. It's hardly news that global companies make (or negotiate) their own rules for trade and profit, Black Gold offers an especially poignant and also polished demonstration of the problem: even as coffee is the second most actively traded commodity in the world market, its producers are left with near nothing to show for it. Punctuated by long shots of foggy mountainsides as well as very close shots of glistening green coffee beans on the tree, the film makes its argument with the help of an evocative score by Andreas Kapsalis.

With its focus on Ethiopia (the "birthplace of coffee"), the documentary makes Meskela its hero, seeking justice for those he represents. His wife, Rosa, testifies, "I'm proud of what he is doing. He loves his farmers and defends their rights. He is always preoccupied with the farmers' poverty." (This as she acknowledges that he's away from home more than often than she'd like.) But as much as his commitment is noble, it's also frustrating. No matter where he goes, he's met with similar indifference. His efforts at the Annual Coffee Trade Show in London look puny compared to the shows put on by larger bodies. He makes his way to his exhibition hall, one of many in a huge building full of escalators and glass walls, he sets up his booth and lays out his packs of unroasted sample beans ("My hope is to get new contacts"). Bringing along only those samples he was able to carry in plastic bags by hand, he can't compete with other representatives at more popular displays show off shiny coffee-making machines. A lonely-sounding piano underlines Meskela's plight, and by extension, Ethiopia's.

Again and again, the film makes similar observations, contrasting dire circumstances in a famine-afflicted village, a makeshift medical tent servicing ill children, and a dilapidated African school house ("The economy of the school is based on coffee," says principal Alemayhu Abrahim, "As long as the price of coffee goes up ad down, the school will be affected. We can't afford to buy blackboards and won't be able to pay teachers in the near future") and the upbeat chatter of a Starbucks manager in Seattle's Pike Place Market. "This is the first Starbucks," announces a proud employee, started in 1971. The manager calls her eight months at the store "the most special thing ever." Recalling the information she gathered during a training session, she gushes, "It's just amazing, not just how much bigger we're getting but just the lives that we're touching. We're in the people business serving coffee, so it's more about the connections we have with our people, and just what the brand stands for."

It's hard to condemn her enthusiasm, but the manager embodies the crisis portrayed in the film. Blissful, she's unaware of the conditions across the world that allow for her "most special thing ever." Dr. Ernesto Illy, Honorary Chairman of Illy Cafe, like the tasters who proclaim the quality of aroma and the baristas snapped by newspaper photographers as they compete for the title of "Barista of the Year," the Starbucks manager doesn't see beyond her own horizon.

But if she provides the movie with an obvious target, she also reveals the insidiousness of the trouble. Poverty in Ethiopia is less a function of malevolence than ignorance. As Meskela walks through London on the way to yet another convention, he stops in a store to see where Sidamo coffee, which he represents, is hidden on a shelf. He sighs. "The consumers can bring the change," he says, still optimistic, "If awareness is given to consumers to ask for more fair trade for products." And, you hope, for those who produce them.






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