Film provides glimpse into politics of coffee

by Matt Goldman

The coffee industry is now valued at $80 billion, making it one of the most lucrative commodities, second only to oil. Every day 2 billion lattes, mochas, cappuccinos and regular old cups of joe are served up worldwide.

For many, coffee isn’t just a morning pick me up, it’s a lifestyle. In Trieste, Italy, where some of the best cups of coffee are made, baristas live by the mantra “wake up, smile… coffee.” And people are willing to pay. A 16-ounce cup can go for as much as $4 at some corporate outfits.

Ironically, in Sidama, Ethiopia, which supplies coffee beans to the prolific Starbucks Corp., growers on the verge of bankruptcy and famine are found literally praying for a fair price for their product. It’s a staggering paradox.

Tadessa Meskala, owner of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, seeks to protect himself and his farmers from this blatant exploitation. The documentary Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, screened once at the Weatherspoon Art Museum and again at Two Art Chicks, uses Meskala as the symbol for the mistreatment of African growers by these multinational corporations unwilling to buy their coffee at a fair price. Throughout the film, Meskala attends various conferences in an attempt to turn buyers on to his product and subsequently offer a fair price.

In their mission statement on the film’s website, directors Mark and Nick Francis seek to show how through just one cup of coffee we are “inextricably connected to the livelihoods of millions of people who are struggling to survive.”

The two do their job, and they do so with subtlety. In the Michael Moore age of film documentaries, where we must constantly be on the lookout for propaganda, Black Gold tells a story which speaks for it self.

Gini Kades, a Guilford College senior, was one of 20 or so people at the Thursday evening screening. “I really appreciated the fact that the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to be overly melodramatic or pushy,” she said. “With this type of subject matter, you really don’t need to.”

Kades was one of a handful of college students in attendance along with roughly half of the employees of the cooperative health food store Deep Roots Market and activists of all ages.

Black Gold first screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006. Since then it has been shown anywhere from Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. It has also been showed in various parts of Europe as well, namely England, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Germany.

At a particularly poignant spot, Black Gold returns to Sidama, where one coffee farmer’s situation is so dire that he is forced to live in a shack with 15 other people. In the same village, teachers are forced to write on poster-sized paper tacked to the wall since they lack the adequate funding to purchase even a chalkboard.

The film then provides a crucial juxtaposition. Thousands of miles away, in Seattle, we see footage of the first Starbucks bustling with clientele. According to one barista, to land a spot working at this shop is no easy task as it has become a tourist attraction and generates substantial amounts of revenue. The polarity of the situation seems completely illogical until the film next takes us to the World Trade Organization where trade prices were set at the hands of members of the United States and European Union, while African countries lack the power and capital to partake in establishing any kind of trade rules. It’s a truly infuriating reality – one that should make you do a double take on where your next double shot comes from.

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