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Perfection, Caffeinated: Director Rock Baijnauth on His Documentary, 'Baristas'

Photo courtesy of The Orchard

Director Rock Baijnauth talks with PopMatters about spending time with Barista Champions and their pursuit of coffee perfection for his latest documentary, Baristas.

Rock Baijnauth

The Orchard

2 Apr 2019 (UK) / 7 May 2019 (DVD, UK)

Following his 2015 documentary Barista, in which he documented five competitors competing at the U.S. Coffee Championships, director Rock Baijnauth returns to the world of barista competition with Baristas (2018). Second time around, he follows four National Barista Champions, Kyle Ramage (USA), Miki Suzuki (Japan), Chloe J. Nattrass (Germany) and Niall Wynn (Ireland) as they compete at the World Barista Championship in Seoul, South Korea.

Prior to Barista, Baijnauth directed the narrative short Priority One (2002), about a drug runner who with the best of intentions to help his family who risks being double-crossed by his accomplices. This was followed by The Pirate Tapes (2011), a documentary about Somalian pirates, featuring footage recorded from a hidden camera by a young Somali-Canadian who infiltrates a pirate cell.

In conversation with PopMatters, Baijnauth discusses moving beyond a world of commerce to explore the nature of competition, and his hopes that his latest documentary, Baristas, might inspire people to pursue their passion.

A narrative fiction filmmaker collaborates with real persons out of which emerges a fictitious cast of characters and personas. In contrast, as a documentary filmmaker you never stray from the reality of the stories, emotions, and motivations of your subjects. The way narrative fiction and documentary contrasts is perhaps more intimate than we frame it with the phrases of truth and fiction.

That's the blessing and the curse of documentary. You have these real stories that, as a documentarian, you can't alter, otherwise you are altering the truth of it. The key to it is finding an interesting subject right off the bat, whereas with narrative you have a little bit more leeway and you can be: "Hey, I met this person, so I am going to embellish the things that I think are funny about them" or "embellish the sadness". But with a doc. you just have to find that richness up front, and so it's just a lot more pinpointing of who the right subjects are before you dive in.

I have friends who I think would love to write a screenplay... but I just know they wouldn't sustain on camera for the length of time a documentary would take. So it's really important to narrow down who the subject is going to be and if they are going to be compelling for the feature length. That's where I come from, and in terms of documentary...

Photo courtesy of The Orchard

In Baristas, it's not one subject who is asked to carry the documentary for its duration. The four competing baristas, each with their own story and personality play off of, and support, one another. When you say find an interesting character/subject, to my mind it's about finding a group of characters that will have a collective harmony, and juxtapose with one another effectively.

The essence of the film was to show how we all differ when we compete, but even though the processes are different, the end goal is the same, as is how much we share universally. So it was super-important to find exactly, as you said it, characters that play off and compliment one another, but still have this interesting contrast. We were just so fortunate to be able to do that by virtue of their cultures, and how they were brought up.

A lot of that just came from doing pre-interviews and finding these richly interesting people that we spoke to. So after those initial interviews, we knew Miki was going to be different enough from someone who comes from Ireland [Niall], or Kyle from North Carolina is going to be different from someone [Chloe] who is an ex-pat from Australia, who now lives in Berlin. But their processes and their passion are still the same; their desire to win and to represent their country is still a universal thing, and so it's great all of that came through and came together like that.

What motivated your return to the world of barista competition?

… Whereas the first movie was a very localised film, for us we look back at it now and it just seems a smaller competition, and it was technically. We were just following a small U.S. national and that was simply a function of the budget we had. We were just not able to do the travel, and so for the second movie I said: "It would be really cool to show how people from various countries compete." Not in a traditional sport because I'd seen that, but coffee was something we knew about and we had gained some of the trust of the community. So now that we'd done the first one, it would be cool to not only focus on the themes of passion in the face of commerce, but how different people from different countries prep for competition. And for this competition that isn't your normal everyday run of the mill.

The scope of it is so much bigger, it's a lot grander. I keep saying the first film feels to me like a science experiment, and yeah, you look at your work in comparison. I was watching it with my DP a few weeks ago and we were saying: "This is science-fair-esque [laughs], I'm glad we made a bigger one." It's a lot richer and I just think being able to show someone's culture and trying to capture this sense of national pride, it's just something you don't get in the first film, and I'm glad we were able to highlight that more in the second one.

This documentary not only compelled me to look at coffee with a fresh perspective, but also the barista. While comparisons may be drawn between other professional competitions, what we mustn't lose sight of is this competition's importance for allowing people with these talents to have a means to express themselves and to grow together.

I'm so glad that you brought that up because that was something we definitely wanted to highlight. You don't have to be a track star or an olympic swimmer to be celebrated for trying to pursue excellence, and a lot of the time, even in documentary filmmaking, we are not dealing with these astronomical budgets. You are just doing so much of it for the passion of doing something, and trying to make your craft better with what you have. So making these movies is sort of a metaphor for what we're doing all the time - we're just striving to be the best we can at what we're doing.

Having seen these guys magnify it at this level, I keep saying this is the olympics of coffee. That's how hard they train and how much it means to them to win for their country. So I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating the pursuit of excellence regardless of the field…

Photo courtesy of The Orchard

National pride in the context of sport can feel adversarial, whereas here I found myself rooting for each of the four baristas, regardless of their nationality. One of the beautiful aspects of Baristas is that it celebrates people and not individual national identity, or culture.

We are at the World Championships right now in Boston where we are showing the film. Yesterday one person said: "I loved the way you not only captured Miki's character, but the Japanese culture as a whole; the Irish culture or the German culture as a whole." You really get a sense of who the people are through their environment, and that was a great thing that we hopefully achieved, and I am glad that people are saying this. It's great to show or to just celebrate people in this way.

… A lot of people will say this is a coffee movie and they write it off as if you like coffee, you'll like this movie. But I really want to celebrate passion and this enduring love for a craft, and I think that's really important. If I can get someone to love the thing that they are doing, or watch this movie and decide they want to start up their band again, then I've done my job. It's not about: Hey, being a barista would be a really cool job, I should try that. So many people have come up to us and have said: "I stopped doing what I love and your movie made me want to do it again," and that's when I really feel we nailed it. That's what I wanted, a celebration of life and what you love in life, and to keep on doing it - I think that's the best compliment.

In Baristas, there seems to be a deliberate intent to merge narrative storytelling techniques with the documentary form. For example, when Chloe is competing there's a flashback to a mishap while training, and when Niall is competing you cut to a shot of a child swimming, which reminds us of his competitive swimming background. This has the feel of a dramatic technique that allows an intimate connection to be sustained between subject and audience.

Alongside my director of photography Roger Singh, I also work with a gentleman named Rob Kraetsch, who are both fantastic directors of photography, and we talk about films that we love when we want to shoot something. We are actually trying to craft scenes that we love, and the scene where Niall is practising his speech is very The King's Speech (Hooper, 2010) – shot with them looking directly at the camera. And then for how to light things [I referred to] Wong Kar-wai, because I love cinema like that. So while filming Miki, In the Mood for Love (2000) was a huge influence on us ... we wanted that moodiness.

When we want to shoot something we often reference these kinds of movies, and try to get that mood, even though you don't necessarily know what's going to happen because it's documentary. But we are still able to film the moodiness of it and those small artistic flourishes, those nods to someone's past life you were mentioning, like Niall's thinking about his swimming background, I often try to put people in the heads of these competitors.

I know for a fact Niall was thinking a lot about his competitive swimming background when he was competing in the coffee competition, and we even mention that at the beginning. So I wanted to call that back so you get the sense of nerves and how he's feeling. He had to give up this one thing he loved. How's he going to do in coffee, now? Those are the kinds of things I like to visually display, rather than have a talking head say: "I was super-nervous on stage at the Worlds." Of course you were, it was the World Championships. How do you show that to the audience in a subtle way where it's like: Oh wow, is this guy worried about leaving [the coffee industry] if he doesn't do well? Or is Chloe worried about not achieving what she wants to at something she has worked really hard at? Those flourishes are really important.

... It's always our goal to entertain when we make a documentary. I don't try to look at it from the point of view of is this a narrative or is this a documentary. I want to take somebody on a journey for 90 minutes and give them their money's worth. We definitely try and infuse as much narrative and creative techniques as we can, so people get the sense that we are watching something more than just documenting what's happening in the world. It's just a little bit extra that we are trying to put in.

Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Is it inevitable that in the process of documenting the experiences of your subjects, there is a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process?

Oh absolutely, and you watch these competitors compete at what they do, they're the best in their country, and you realise how little you not only know about coffee, but how little you know about perfection - "Wow, I could be doing more at my craft." These people work so hard at their's and we do too, but whether it's a late night editing session, or we've been going for fifteen or seventeen hours, this is how hard Miki worked at doing her coffee; this is how Kyle worked at doing his. So of course, when you film people who are just so driven, it makes you not want to hand in something that's just okay.

A lot of our heart and soul is in this movie and a lot of people worked really hard to get it to where it needed to be, and I am just so proud of it. When you watch someone and you work with someone for that long, it definitely rubs off on you, especially in that I need to up my game because these guys are so great at what they do, and I just need to be able to convey that to an audience…

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