When Marc and Nick Francis' wonderful documentary Black Gold screened for the press at this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Illy, the Italian coffee company, left a mound of gift bags and literature outside the theatre. HRWFF documentaries do not usually inspire giveaways, and many of us ignored the coffee, but not the savvy notion that had prompted the display. Black Gold is about how global trade policy led to famine in the coffee-producing nation of Ethiopia. Ethiopian farmers grow some of the most desirable Arabica coffee in the world, and Illy, whose CEO appears briefly in the documentary, buys only Arabica coffee. It does so not at the price set at the exchanges in New York and London, but at a price negotiated between the producer and the company. Illy was trumpeting its product as the choice for socially conscious consumers, a "free-trade" choice which could alter the fate of Ethiopia. ("Free-trade" refers to a product with a price mutually determined by the buyer and the producer.)
While the Francis brothers might consider Illy's display troublesome (as did several journalists), it is comforting for American audiences to know that a solution to at least one global problem, the one identified in Black Gold, is within their grasp. America is the world's largest importer of coffee. Four of our multinationals, including Starbucks, dominate the market, and the vast majority of the coffee they purchase is not "free-trade." It's bought at the price set each day at the New York Board of Trade in New York City, which appears briefly in the documentary. Starbucks, on the other hand, figures prominently in Black Gold, and the company, to its credit, chose not to ignore criticism aimed at its buying habits. A month after the documentary screened at HRWFF, Starbucks announced it would triple its purchase of coffee beans from Ethiopia and other African countries, although it didn't say it would buy "free-trade."
As human-rights filmmakers, the Francis brothers do not shy away from graphic depictions of the effect of plummeting coffee prices: There are images of malnourished children and inadequate housing, but this is balanced by the beauty of the Ethiopian countryside, and the indomitable spirit of the farmers and their families, and by Tadesse Meskela. Meskela is the representative of a coffee cooperative which consists of 75,000 Ethiopian coffee farmers. He's Black Gold's charismatic coffee insider. Meskela guides the audience through the intricacies of the $80 billion global trade in coffee, and explains the obstacles he confronts in selling the cooperative's coffee "free-trade" or directly to retailers. At the market in Addis Ababa, Meskela talks the audience through the trading process, pointing out how middlemen acting on behalf of the multinationals profit regardless of the selling price. We're at Meskela's side at trade shows in England and the U.S., and on his visits to farmers and to a sorting facility where women work for less than 50 cents a day.
Black Gold is reminiscent of Life and Debt (2001), Stephanie Black's surprisingly entertaining documentary about the decline of Jamaica after the intervention of the IMF and World Bank in that country's economy. Like Black, the Francis brothers maintain a lively pace and a satirical mood, although instead of a narrative track--Life and Debt relied on Jamaica Kinkaid's poetry--the British filmmakers employ intertitles. Black Gold is the work of responsible documentarians whose thoughtful, thorough knowledge of their subject promises to transform our view of that ubiquitous three-dollar cup of coffee sold at our favorite retail shop. It takes 40 to 50 coffee beans to make one cup of coffee, and there are approximately 800 beans in a pound of coffee. When Marc and Nick Francis made Black Gold, the multinationals were paying less than 50 cents a pound for Ethiopia's Arabica.
While the selling price of coffee has gone up this past year--it's trading at an average of $1.14 a pound-Oxfam estimates that farmers still earn only two cents on every cup of coffee sold at a retail outlet. Black Gold asks us to imagine how simply and swiftly we Americans, who drink several hundred million cups of coffee a day, can change that, and improve the lives of 25 million people in more than 50 nations in the world who rely on coffee for their livelihood. It took the Francis brothers two years to complete their debut feature-length documentary, but they obviously did so with the unshakable belief of all human-rights filmmakers that justice is only one screening away.