Standard disclaimer! I am incapable of doing this type of thing without some use of spoilers. You have been warned.
The Pan African Film Festival website can be found here. It is not dial-up friendly, and there's nothing you can do to stop that irritating song from launching every single time you click a page. Make your peace with that before you clicky.
The no blogging on weekends anymore thing is suspended during film festivals.
Film: Black Gold (This one has a great tag - "Wake up and smell the coffee.")
Director: Marc and Nick Francis
Editor: Hugh Williams
Stars: Tadesse Meskela, the Oromia Coffee Union
Awards: None so far that I could find.
Genre: Documentary/Social Justice
The first thing to say is that you need to go see this documentary if it comes anywhere near you. If it doesn't come near you, get the dvd as soon as it hits the rental market.
As a person for whom a day without a grande black eye is a day without higher brain function, I was Morally Required to see this movie. Though vaguely aware of the disagreement between the people who sprout the beans and the people who sell the result for $2.85 a cup, I long ago chose the path of Ignorance Is Bliss when it comes to coffee. I NEED the coffee to function, and don't want any Inconvenient Details getting between me and the coffee.
Yes. I am a weak and feeble vessel. That's between me and the Flying Spaghetti Monster though, so shut up.
We here at BGF Central are documentary freaks. Wanna know a secret? I have tattoos because of a documentary I saw about Papua New Guinea when I was pre-teen. I have dreadlocks because of a documentary I saw during early teens. I couldn't get the tats or the dreads until grown, out of the house paying my own way, but those things came from something I saw in a documentary, fell in love with, hunted down more info about and quietly held onto until it was safe to make a move. The parental units were busy kinda monitoring the weirdo books and even weirdo friends, but REALLY they should have been monitoring PBS. They thought PBS was safe! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA suckers!!!!
Anywho, to me documentaries fall under four broad categories - Nature, Social Justice, Anthropology and History. There can be a little bit of overlap, but in general all documentaries are one of these things.
A social justice documentary sets out to do more than tell you Something's Fucked Up. (I mean, really. We're all aware that lots of things are fucked up in the world.) It tries to tell you Something's Fucked Up And Maybe You Should Consider Doing Whatever Small Thing You Can To Make It Less Fucked Up. A lot of social justice documentaries fail, leaving you with a sense of yup! there's something else that's fucked up! along with a dash of major bummer. A good social justice documentary forces you to get off your ass and poke around in search of what you can do to contribute to making things a little bit less fucked up.
Black Gold is a social justice documentary in the most successful sense. It is one of the most devestatingly effective works of its type I have ever seen.
The issue! There was a quote in the film that boiled the whole thing down to its essence, but it was too dark for me to write down. Happily, it's up on the website!
"Our hope is one day the consumer will understand what they are drinking. Consumers can bring a change if awareness is given to consumers. It is not only on coffee, all products are getting a very low price - and the producers are highly affected."
Though coffee is an $80 billion industry and the second-most valuable commodity in the world, the people who bring forth the coffee from the earth are not adequately compensated for their skills and labor. (This was a huge eye opener. I'd always assumed that if I'm paying $2.85 for coffee, the people who made the beans get at least .75 of that, plus clean water via an associated program my $2.85 helped support. I have no idea where I got this idea from.) In reality, poverty among the growers is such that their children are malnourished, people cannot afford to pursue basic education, and replacing coffee plants with a more lucrative crop of mild narcotics is a last resort effort to pursued to feed the family. This movie focused on Ethiopians because that's where coffee originally came from, but it's not a stretch to imagine that the pattern is repeated among coffee growers in Latin America.
The numbers I could find on the internet(s) are different than the numbers presented in the film. (It was dark! I couldn't write down what was on the screen!) It could be with time the numbers have shifted during the time it took to make and release the movie, but the difference isn't that vast in a big picture sense so I'm going to put here the numbers I found on the internet(s). Raw coffee goes for about $1.50 a pound. Of that, the growers get about $1.10 a pound. The raw coffee goes to roaster companies, who cook it up to bring out the complexities needed for the liquid stage. The roasters can get $25 a pound for what they sell to the coffee companies, the people who turn it into something I can drink. The coffee companies can get about $160 worth of product out of one pound of roasted coffee.
None of that $160 per pound goes back to the growers who were paid $1.10 per pound.
The only word for this is obscene.
On top of that, 67% of Ethiopia's export revenue derives from the sale of coffee beans. When the price point for beans collapsed, the entire country was fucked. There was no backup to get them through the lean years.
Why are the people who grow the coffee that we depend on not at least making a standard of living that places them comfortably above subsistence? What got in the way between their skills/effort and the market providing fair, just compensation? This movie takes a look at that question. The filmmakers had to get at that answer despite the refusal of the major coffee companies - Sara Lee, Proctor & Gamble, Kraft, Nestle and Starbucks - to participate. (To me, this makes the whining of at least one of those companies since the film has started rolling out rather pathetic. Yeah, I didn't realize P&G made coffee, either.)
The approach! This film largely centers on what had to be a couple of years in the life of Tadesse Meskela, the rep for the Oromia Coffee Collective. It follows him as he moves between Ethiopia and London. He's a very personable man, has a thing for detail, and is obviously committed to seeking economic redress for the growers he represents. Though the toil of carrying the hopes and livelihoods of about 75,000 coffee farmers on his shoulders must be hell, he doesn't show it. Either he's really good at covering, or he simply isn't the type to break.
Along the way we see the growers in Ethiopia and consumers in the West interacting with coffee in a way that can only be described (around here anyway) as Multiverse. The Ethiopian farmers are on Earth 1 - where the family farm generates so little money that 15 people have to live in a single dwelling, and the West is on Earth 2 - where an idiot white barista competing in front of the pale gathering at the World Barista Championships preens as if winnin a medal actually matters. On Earth 1, an aid worker explains why a malnourished child is not malnourished enough to qualify for help in a grower region that suddenly finds itself dealing with famine because no one can afford to purchase food. On Earth 2, a pale coffee shop assistant manager is breathless in her praise of her manager of eight months, who won an intra-office managerial award. They also talk about branding, and how good it is to make people feel good through coffee and to make personal connections with customers. On Earth 1, an Ethiopian woman has a job as a bean sorter, where she earns less than $.50 a day for spending eight hours at a table hand-sorting teeny beans that are not as nice as other teeny beans. On Earth 1, coffee growers are trying to figure out how to come up with money to build a school. On Earth 2, at the WTO gathering in Mexico where people who were not of the West were locked out of the closed-door negotiations, the rep for the United States describes the collapse of talks as being the clash between "people who can do, and people who won't do."
I guess what I'm saying is Black Gold brings it home and makes it personal.
There is no voice over narration. Data points not conveyed through the folks talking about their experiences is presented via screen text. This approach helps you feel as if you're listening in as opposed to being told to. It's a small thing, but it helps a lot.
The plot holes! The only thing I didn't get a sense of by the end of the film was *why* the price point for coffee beans has tumbled to such a low. There was a passing reference to the 1989 collapse of some sort of coffee organization (reminder: it was dark, couldn't take notes), and an implication that what went down at the WTO many several years later played a role, but I still don't get it. If liquid coffee is at such a demand on the global scale, *why* is the source not a scarcity commanding top price? Is it because of overplanting? Is it because the bulk purchasing power of the buyers is skewing everything (aka the Wal-Mart/McDonalds effect)?
The music! I have no idea, but it was perfect. It was not over used, over done or overwhelming. Some of it was African, some of it was African-ish.
Application of the First Rule: High.
Application of the Sledgehammer Rule: The Brothers Francis done good. They left the hammer in the tool shed because they didn't need it.
Reaction of 13-year-old boy who is my inner essence: He screamed DAMN YOU MICHAEL BAY and went to sleep.
Application of Julia Phillips rule: From a visual sense, like most documentaries this one doesn't lose anything if you can only see it on dvd. But from an educational, you need to make every effort to see this in a theater if it comes anywhere near you.
Going to hedge a little bit. Talked afterward to some people who insisted this film was beautifully shot, and a couple of them were Hollywood People who were not plants. To me the look of the film was not outstanding, but that could have been because this theater is not up to snuff tech-wise. Films run dark, the sound is off, the images skitter and jump. Hate to say that, but it's true. Over the years I have seen films at this theater that look completely different when I see them at other theaters, especially when they're running digital files. If Black Gold came to the Arclight, I'd go see it again just to suss out the quality of the look.
Die Whitey index: High. They never say it, but in what they put on the screen this film clearly shows how racism at a global scale unleashes severe economic disparity. It's very much an Us/Not Us story. But this must be said...though the filmmakers tended to show whites when doing the generalized segments in the West, this is very much a socio-economic story. Though white people might be the only ones showing up at the world barista championships, and are at the center of power during the closed-door negotiations at the WTO, brown people with more disposable income at hand than folks have . We want the 'legitimacy' that comes with the brand showing up on our side of town. It makes us feel like part of the game. Whitey knows this. Thus there are *two* Starbucks on Crenshaw now, barely over one mile from each other, staffed with blacks and Latinos. Meanwhile, 5th Street Dick's just shut down again, opening up only for special events.
On the other hand, when Wal-Mart tried to pull some serious levels of shit down the road in Inglewood, they got set back. But was that a temporary victory in a
Hotness index: N/A
Additional PAFF screenings: Feb. 12, 5:45 p.m.
Random tidbit: The q/a after was moderated by a guy I had seen manning the Charles Bibbs booth throughout the day. I kept staring at him, convinced that I knew him or at least had talked to him somewhere before. I saw a lot of spoken word performers wandering around, so I figured the vibe of familiarity must have come from him being one of them. When he walked by at the post-screening coffee tasting, I stopped him, introduced myself, and asked if he was a performance poet or maybe someone who does the storytelling circut. He said "no, but I'm an actor". The SECOND he said his name, it clicked. Holy shit. I met Hostetler, and shook his hand.
I managed to let him go off without going FanGirl. I also did not automatically reach for the speed dial to call James as we parted, which I have decided to view as a sign of progress. Nor did I cry once I got in the car, another positive development.
Of course the problem for the rest of the festival will be resisting the urge to bring the second season box set and a Sharpie to the show for him to sign. While that sort of thing is fine at CCI, I think it would be considered tacky at PAFF.
That brings up something I still can't figure out. Considering how long as I've lived in this town and encountered upper-eschelon actors at the grocery store, at the mall, in bathrooms, at various coffee shops and at bunches of movie & stage theaters - the thought STILL doesn't hit that if I think a stranger looks familiar, he or she is probably an actor.
Bonus tidbit! Whenever I see documentaries about certain regions of Africa, I'm struck by the lack of women visible in public spaces.
One more bonus tidbit! This came up during the q/a. As of this typing I don't know more than what was said at the event and what I quickly scanned once getting home and firing up Google. But if you run Ethiopia + coffee + trademark though a search engine, the results are interesting. Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe are regions where certain types of Ethipoian coffee is grown. The Ethiopians would like to trademark these names. One wonders, if the French are the only people in the world allowed to officially use the term 'champagne to describe certain types of wine due to that wine coming from a specific region in France, why would anyone question the right of Africans to do the same? Oh, wait. I know why. Never mind.
Was Quentin there? Not that I noticed.
Wow. This one turned out really long. That's what happens when I just sit down and start typing from top of head. I bet it's also full of typos! I'll catch 'em later. Another documentary is on deck for today, but chances are that write-up will be much shorter because it starts late, ends later and Monday belongs to the day job.