Black Gold - A Coffee and Trade Documentary

Grant ChenDecember 1st, 2008
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Coffee. Some consider it a simple drink to wake up to in the morning, while others think of it as a luxury. In either case, what's unknown to millions of world-wide consumers is that coffee is more than just a drink - it's also the second most traded commodity in the world. The first? Oil.

As a billions dollar trading industry that reverberates throughout the world markets, a select few in the distribution and retail coffee chain reap extravagant rewards, while those at the bottom of the pyramid are often left fending. From farmers in South America to Africa growing coffee bean, to the commodities traders on Wall Street, the effects of the coffee industry are far reaching.

Black Gold is a documentary created by independent filmmakers Nick and Marc Francis, that provides a strikingly visual and personal look into the coffee industry. By weaving a narrative around a hopeful spokesperson for a struggling Ethiopian coffee co-op, the documentary puts the viewer not in the comfortable chair of a casual observer, but as a first-person observer watching a modern day David and Goliath story.

The end result has been both riveting and immediate, with the film winning wide acclaimed from the Rome Film Fest, the London Film Festival, Sundance, and the Rio De Janeiro International Film Festival. Even the soundtrack is mesmerizing and for movie buffs, will recall audioscapes similar to Phillip Glass. The constant contrasting editing style that cuts from flamboyant barista competitions to starving children is both a subtle, yet direct message that something is horrifically broken with the coffee industry.

Most importantly, what Black Gold has done is make every morning cup of coffee no longer just an ordinary staple of morning or afternoon routine, but instead, a political message of consumer decisions to either turn a blind eye or to come to the realization that each person's own consumption is effecting the millions across the globe.

A Story that Begins in Africa

As a documentary about the coffee supply chain, Black Gold begins in Ethiopia, which is the largest producer of coffee in Africa. Ethiopia is also the birthplace of coffee, where the lore of coffee begins when farmers notice their goats acting more energetic after eating berries from a coffee tree. Harvested and drank for thousands of years, Ethiopa produces some of the world's most coveted coffee beans, Ethiopian Harar and Yirgacheffe. Yet, despite the stratospheric rise of the coffee industry over the last decade, Ethiopian coffee farmers are still struggling to feed their families.

The viewer is first introduced to the charismatic Tadesse Meskela, who is shown as an eloquent, yet serious man, with a heavy burden. Meskela is the general manager of Oromia Coffee Farmers, a coffee co-op that represents over 74,000 coffee farmers in the country. In the opening scenes, Meskela walks through an impressive warehouse filled with bags of coffee beans waiting to be shipped. Holding up a handful of Harar to the camera, he is matter-of-fact when saying they are paid a very low price for some of the best coffee in the world.

Co-ops are common in Ethiopia and in the coffee industry, offering collective bargaining power to farmers who are often undercut by coffee buyers. The needs of all members and families are overseen by the co-op, while each member jointly owns a share of what is collectively earned. Often, the co-op can only do enough to keep it's members barely fed, let alone afford such luxuries such as health care, education, clothing and clean water. Throughout the movie, the directors often cut back to the hardships in Ethiopia,

In the documentary's most memorable scene, Meskela addresses a crowd of coffee farmers, asking if they know how much a cup of coffee costs in western countries. When the farmers reply that they don't know, Meskela tells a cup of coffee is $2.90. The farmers react with disbelief and even amusement at the idea of paying more for a cup of coffee than 10 kilos of beans. However, when Meskela informs the farmers that one single kilogram of coffee beans is used to produce 80 cups of coffee in the western world, the farmers are stunned into silence. The expression on their faces slowly turn into anger, as the farmers realize that their hard work and suffering has been exploited for profit.

This single scene pointedly summarizes the goal of documentary: that unfair trade practices exist and can only be solved with increased awareness and education by everyone involved.

The title screen from the documentary Black Gold
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