No, I’m not slated as the latest guest movie reviewer for TV’s Ebert & Roeper. (Though I would love to be backstage to witness Robert Roeper tell his guests, “My show. Got that? It’s my show now!”) But last night, KQED aired a coffee-crisis-themed documentary for PBS’s “Indepedent Lens,” titled Black Gold: Independent Lens . BLACK GOLD | PBS.
We first mentioned this documentary back in January 2006. Last November, the Mission district’s Roxie Theater gave it a weekend showing — and at first I rued missing it. But after watching the movie last night, I’m glad I didn’t spend the money. PBS will also be airing this documentary on various affiliates in the coming weeks, so check your local listings.
Although the movie is of interest because of its subject matter, it largely fails as a documentary. Other reviewers have similar thoughts, calling it “nearsighted” and “not particularly well-grounded”. In short, it seems best targeted to a rather green audience (in terms of both naïveté and environmentalism) who is either new to the global coffee crisis or is seeking further validation for their newfound Fair Trade ethics. The film offered no original nor particularly insightful perspectives.
What Black Gold does provide seems more of an autistic auteur’s interpretation of the modern, social-issue-driven documentary: a lot of footage of the destitute, a few random statistics thrown on screen showing how little growers receive, and spliced in footage of big business coffee in the Western world. But rather than connecting all the pieces together for us in a cohesive cause-and-effect argument, it leaves us with disconnected factoids and a cloying sense of emotional appeal.
“And therefore, how could you not buy Fair Trade coffee!?”
Sure, it’s not the Chewbacca defense, but, “Huh?” There are no financial breakdowns of what percentage of the price of coffee goes where in the whole supply chain. There’s no critical examination of how co-operatives work, or not, for small farmers (Fair Trade ensures a minimum price is paid to co-operatives, not growers — everything beyond that isn’t addressed). But perhaps the movie’s worst offense was the glaring omission of the role of the Big Four and Vietnamese robusta coffee behind the global coffee crisis.
Starbucks gets a bit of unfair treatment too. Their stock price might soar on the “hot air” thermal currents created by a faux image of Fair Trade goodness (only 3.7% of their coffee is certified as Fair Trade), but lumping them in with the Big Four was a bit extreme. Unlike the Big Four, at least Starbucks popularized the notion that customers’ coffee tastes could evolve beyond stale cans of Yuban.
The movie’s producers have a clear Fair Trade agenda, but they do little to clearly justify it. The global coffee crisis, and the inequities of globalization, involve complex issues. Far too complex for overly simplistic platitudes such as “buy Fair Trade coffee” as the natural and only solution to the mess. For example, just reference today’s Vancouver Sun — where a Fair Trade researcher concluded, “Consumers should never believe that problems of poverty are so simple they can be alleviated just by buying a certain label.”: Make sure your fair trade coffee really is, researcher says.
So at best, the movie offers the emotional appeal of a Sally Struthers telling us what “just a few cents per cup” could do. But wouldn’t higher incomes help the lives of just about anyone in the world living below the poverty line?
But at worst, the filmmakers’ techniques of storytelling with disconnected facts, emotionally-charged imagery, no legitimate attempt to connect the dots, and a drawn conclusion without clearly supporting arguments is on par with what the American public received as justification for the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As for the movie’s redeemable merits…
My favorite part of the film, however, was seeing Caffè Artigiano‘s Sammy Piccolo (who is called ‘Salvatore’ Piccolo in the footage) competing at the 2005 World Barista Championship in Seattle. Sammy placed third that year. If only The Roxie offered you one of Sammy’s espresso shots, it would have made it worth the price of admission.
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