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Black Gold: wake up and smell the coffee

About the author
Rob Cawston is openDemocracy's production manager. He has written on film, literature, issues of transitional justice and Bob Dylan.

by Rob Cawston

Black Gold

Causes are boring. Or simply mundane. And the bigger they are the more the message gets subsumed into our everyday consciousness ... poverty bad, debt bad, aid ok, free trade bad (possibly), fair trade good (always?).

I saw a film at the weekend that woke me up again. A ristretto to the brain.

Black Gold follows the fortunes of Ethiopian coffee growers and explores the complex path of the coffee bean from African smallholding to your double-skinny-Frappacino-delight.

The documentary shows farmers unable to gain a liveable price for a high quality product due to an industry tied to the New York exchange and the chain of companies blocking the path of humble bean to frothing machine.

One scene shows farmers asked how much they think a cup of coffee sells for in the west. They reply "we don't know, we don't know". When told, their smiles seem to say both "we can't comprehend" and "we don't want to know". There's also an unbelievable interview in the "first Starbucks" (looking very similar to all other Starbucks) with an employee completely consumed by her company's PR ("we touch so many people..."). The world barrista championship is also pretty amazing with the MOST INTENSE Canadian ever. Coffee, it seems, is a serious business.

It is these juxtapositions that make the film so effective. Director team Mark and Nick Francis have moved away from a Hollywood-style cooption of "human rights" causes to a more honest and form of documentary - here is the reality, this is what happens - without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality or providing one-size-fits all solutions.

What came across in the discussion after the film at the Rio cinmea in Dalston, Hackney is that there are no easy answers. For example, if we buy the fairtrade option of a giant company like Kraft or Nestle are we just bankrolling the continuation of unfair trade varieties? Hopefully, people won't come out of the cinema needing another shot of reality the next morning to get them to take action.

I am trying to track Nick Francis down for this week's poDcast - watch (or listen to) this space. In the meantime check out the film's website and the online forum.

One last thing, for all you coffee lovers out there living in the world's coffee capitals you can find independent coffee shops with the Delocator (although they are yet to link this to fairtrade retailers). A small step towards a guilt-free hit.

Black Gold


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