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Black Gold DVD

By Nick Francis and Mark Francis
Dogwoof Pictures
Website: www.blackgoldmovie.com
2007, 78 mins, ASIN: B000RWDXVE, £14.99

A much-anticipated DVD release, this award-winning documentary is a compelling, enlightening and unrepentant expose of the multi-billion dollar coffee industry, causing a worldwide stir since its cinema release in 2006.

Beautifully shot, Black Gold follows the indefatigable Tadesse Meskela of Ethiopia's Oromia Coffee Farmers' Co-operative Union, as he visits producers, auctions, trade fairs and western supermarkets, following the coffee cherry from the tree to the cup, while tirelessly campaigning for a fair price for his producers.

The tone of the film is set early during Meskela's meeting with coffee growers in southern Ethiopia. Here he breaks the news that their coffee eventually sells for ten times what they are paid to grow it. Their bewilderment is tangible, likewise their powerlessness to redress the balance.

The filmmakers' firing line is wide and varied, but many of the film's often unwitting targets are delightfully satirised: the insouciant latte sippers in New York, London and Trieste; the pitiful naiveté of staff in the Seattle branch of one multinational coffee chain who cogitate, with priceless irony, on "the lives that we're touching..." by selling non-Fairtrade coffee; the vainglorious World Barista Championships, also in Seattle, where self-styled western coffee-making connoisseurs showcase their talents.

These scenes are powerfully juxtaposed with those documenting the hardship of Ethiopian communities locked into poverty by low prices: village meetings where one coffee farmer is willing, literally, to sell the shirt on his back to help raise funds to build a school; a nutrition centre in the country's famine-hit Sidama region, where a frail toddler is turned away from a feeding centre for not being malnourished enough; the toil of penniless farmers hacking down their coffee plants to grow the controversial, but more profitable, narcotic herb khat; the export processing centre in Addis Ababa, where workers sort some of the world's premium coffee beans for less than US$0.50 a day.

Each example highlights the plight of underpaid coffee growers in Ethiopia and the multiplier effects this has throughout society. This is an unforgiving castigation of the coffee industry, its middlemen and the blissfully ignorant consumers in the developed world who are unable to see any moral imperative beyond their next caffeine fix.

When it comes to coverage of the 2004 World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico, the gloves really come off. Beyond simply coffee, it is an unsettling insight into the political environment in which developing countries have to fight for favourable terms-of-trade. There are scenes of chaos as some delegates are excluded from discussions while richer nations negotiate behind closed doors.

After a long, but eventually successful search for his coffee on the shelves of UK supermarkets, a crestfallen Meskela concludes, "Our hope is that one day the consumer will understand what he is drinking and will ask those people who are not having Fairtrade coffee to pay a fair price".

This is a timely documentary that gives the Fairtrade movement many human faces. But ultimately it is not is not just a film about coffee or fair trade, but also the mechanics of the global market as a whole, its governance and the ways in which individual consumers can make a real change to the livelihoods of real people. Essential viewing.

Date published: January 2008

 

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