Type: Documentary film (78 minutes) and website.
Directors: Marc and Nick Francis
Availability: online video (free access: dailymotion, Underdog Cinema, Black Gold website, or distrify.com streaming rental / download: £3.49 / £8.99 below) or DVD (list of retailers organized by country on the Black Gold website. Price varies by region and retailer: USD$ 26.95, £9.98, CDN$ 69.99, € 13.99).
Page reference: Tesfaye, B. & Potter, J. (2011) Black gold: wake up and smell the coffee. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/blackgold.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)
As westerners revel in designer lattes and cappuccinos, impoverished Ethiopian coffee growers suffer the bitter taste of injustice. In this eye-opening expose of the multi-billion dollar industry, Black Gold traces one man’s fight for a fair price (Source: Anon nda link).
The film follows Tadesse Meskela, an Ethiopian man on a mission to save his 74,000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy. As his farmers strive to harvest some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market, Tadesse travels the world in an attempt to find buyers willing to pay a fair price. Against the backdrop of Tadesse’s journey to London and Seattle, the enormous power of the multinational players that dominate the world’s coffee trade becomes apparent. New York commodity traders, the international coffee exchanges, and the double dealings of trade ministers at the World Trade Organisation reveal the many challenges Tadesse faces in his quest for a long term solution for his farmers (Source: Anon 2010).
Scenes in the film switch between the disadvantaged coffee farming communities to the daily lives of those at the luxury to consume it, which often exemplifies the absurdity found in those gushing about the great wealth of a market built off the backs of farmers who continue to live in poverty (Source: Reed 2008).
The spokesman, Tadesse Meskela, who is the subject of Black Gold, together with the film’s English makers, brothers Nick and Marc Francis, are a serious irritant to some of the world’s coffee giants – in particular Seattle-based Starbucks, whose annual turnover of $7.8bn (£4bn) is not much lower than Ethiopia’s entire gross domestic product… ‘Our people are barefoot, have no school, no clean water or health centre. They are living hand to mouth. We need $4 a pound minimum, that’s only fair…Starbucks may help bring clear water for one community but this does not solve the problem. In 2005, Starbucks’ aid to the third world was $1.5m. We don’t want this kind of support, we just want a better price. They make huge profits; giving us just one payment of money does not help,’ said Mr. Meskela (Source: Seager 2007 link).
By way of the farmers in the cooperative and Tadesse’s efforts on their behalf, the film exposes the web of trade regulations that keep farmers in developing countries poor, even while transnational corporations in the global north prosper. Women painstakingly sort millions of beans; and viewers observe the hunger and substandard housing that accompany poverty. Juxtaposed with these images are the cosmopolitan cafés of Europe and America, the comfort of conspicuous consumption, the places of commerce where deprivation in one part of the globe is turned into the wealth of another (Source: Fellner 2008 link).
I first went to Ethiopia in 1997, and when I was there, I was thinking, ‘I’m in the birthplace of coffee, yet this is one of the poorest countries. How can that be?’ Then in 2003, we learned that Ethiopia was facing another famine, like the one in ’84 that led to the Live Aid concert. But unlike ’84, even the richest coffee-growing areas were caught up in the crisis. At the same time, we were seeing more and more coffee shops everywhere, in Britain, in the U.S. There was this mushrooming coffee industry, but the people who grew it were in this absolute humanitarian emergency. We wanted to make the connection between the two, between the coffee-consuming public and the growers… ‘We wanted to feature a protagonist from Africa who is out there doing something rather than waiting for charity and goodwill,’ Nick explained. For the filmmakers, Tadesse’s work challenged our western notion that Africa survives solely on aid from the developed world (Source: Fellner 2008 link).
How did you meet Tadesse Meskela? Why did you choose to feature his cooperative union in the film? In our research we read about Tadesse and on our first trip to Addis Ababa in 2003 we interviewed him at length about the coffee industry. Towards the end of the interview he mentioned he was going to Europe, the U.S. and Japan to meet buyers to sell his farmers coffee directly. Immediately we realized we had to follow his journey, and so for the next two years we filmed with him in Seattle, London and back in Ethiopia. By focusing on Tadesse and his co-operative union we could create the direct link between consumers and producers. The Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union is also the largest in Ethiopia—it represents over 75,000 farmers. What did you want to achieve with BLACK GOLD? With any film you want to achieve many things. Here are a few of them: We wanted BLACK GOLD to motivate us, as Western consumers, to question some of our basic assumptions about our consumer lifestyle and its interaction with the rest of the world. We wanted to urgently remind audiences that through just one cup of coffee, we are inextricably connected to the livelihoods of millions of people around the world who are struggling to survive, while corporations are earning record profits. We also wanted the film to challenge the stereotypical portrayal of Africa, often characterized in the Western media by an overload of de-contextualized images depicting poverty and helplessness. Crucially we wanted the audience to see that the current international trading system is enslaving millions of people and is urgently in need of radical reform. We wanted people to wake up and smell the coffee… What were some of the challenges you faced in making BLACK GOLD? One of our main challenges was funding the film. Initially we had to put our own resources into starting the project, because we had to capture what was happening in the coffee areas of southern Ethiopia. Also the world trade talks were taking place in Mexico, and we couldn’t wait for funding applications or broadcasters to give us the green light. What was it like filming in so many locations globally? Exhausting! There were so many variables all the time and everything was very unpredictable. Having said that, it helped us feel the story we were trying to tell. One minute we were in the New York Commodity Exchange where billions of dollars are traded, and the next in Ethiopian coffee fields where farmers struggling to survive. That juxtaposition underlines the entire film (Source: Francis & Francis nda link).
We passionately believe that the language of film is a uniquely powerful medium to communicate to audiences everywhere about an engaging and timely issue that has an impact on the world in which we live…From the beginning we wanted to make a film which, while having a political purpose, was not overly polemic; a film which was observational – giving the viewer the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about what they are experiencing. In making the film we also wanted to challenge the portrayal of Africa often characterised in the Western media by an overload of de-contextualised images depicting poverty with no link to our own lives (Source: Francis & Francis ndb link).
When Marc and Nick Francis were making Black Gold, they never expected the story – about the plight of African coffee farmers paid a fraction of the amount a latte or cappuccino costs – to attract the very multinationals the film criticises. ‘They want to hear what the audience thinks,’ Nick Francis says. ‘We had this screening in Seattle, and the head of corporate responsibility of Starbucks came to the screening and participated in a panel and answered questions from the audience. That’s what you call the power of film – how a film could draw in people.’ … The film has prompted rounds of crisis management sessions at coffee-shop chains such as Starbucks, which issued a statement calling the film inaccurate and incomplete. Since the film’s release, the chain has also actively promoted a new range of ‘Fair Trade’ coffee in its outlets around the world, including those in Hong Kong. The filmmakers are surprised by the chain’s response to their film. ‘It’s not a film about Starbucks, it’s a film about coffee farmers struggling to survive in the coffee industry, and their story is set against the backdrop of the coffee-consuming world of the west, of which Starbucks is a part,’ Marc Francis says. ‘We didn’t tell it so much about them but they’ve taken it very personally. Also, we did spend six months trying to interview not just Starbucks but other big multinational coffee companies to bring their side of the stories to the film. But they’ve given us no response. Now that the film is out there and is beginning to pick up public momentum, the companies are responding more and more to the film – or trying to show [through] public relations where they position themselves’ (Source: Tsui 2007a).
’Black Gold’ portrays the coffee industry as a whole, rather than Starbucks specifically. From our point of view, this film is inaccurate and incomplete, as it does not explain how Starbucks purchases coffee, nor does it provide any reference to potential solutions to the world coffee crisis… Starbucks takes an integrated approach to coffee purchasing. Our goal is to pay premium prices that provide the coffee farmer with a profit. In our financial year 2006, we paid an average price of $1.42 per pound for our coffee, 40% above the commodity price and comparable with the guaranteed Fairtrade price of $1.26. Our approach… [has] been recognised for…leadership within the industry (Source: Starbucks 2007).
We are surprised that Starbucks have gone out to discredit the film again. This is not a film specifically about Starbucks, it’s a film about the winners and losers in the global coffee industry and it shows the daily reality for millions of coffee farmers. We spent six months during the production trying to persuade Starbucks to participate in the film to give them the opportunity to explain how they buy their coffee and how they work in Ethiopia, but they declined our invitation. In a subsequent meeting with five senior Starbucks executives at their Seattle headquarters, we asked them to tell us the exact price they pay farmers for a pound of coffee – but they refused to disclose this (Source: Francis & Francis 2007 link).
During the film’s most painful sequence, his [Tadesse’s] efforts and Ethiopia’s persistent, crushing famine are juxtaposed with the vapidly cheerful corp-speak of two Starbucks baristas (Source: Hornaday 2006).
Yes, the baristas are excessively perky as they purvey coffee and the Starbucks experience; yet they are also model employees, supportive of each other, efficient, and proud of their company. At the time of the filming, the young women were entertaining a tour from the Specialty Coffee Association, to which the filmmakers had attached themselves to avoid asking Starbucks or its employees for permission to film. How could these young women know that they would be featured as unwitting symbols of the harm that transnational coffee giants inflict on poor Ethiopian farmers? (Source: Fellner 2008 link).
The Francis brothers are good on showing the situation’s local effects – famine, ill-equipped schools – but less so at analyzing the international economic context: the film is frighteningly free of expert voices. More dynamism and knowledge in the telling and fewer cheap shots at young Starbucks workers in Seattle wouldn’t have gone amiss (Source: Calhoun 2007, np).
The baristas and shopkeepers that the film ridicules through artful editing are the very people who are the farmers’ best hope for teaching the public about the true value of these coffees (Source: Marshall 2006 link).
While it may prompt some to think again next time they’re in Starbucks, this astute insight into the coffee business is better at lauding the good guys than taking the multinationals to task for the iniquities of the global economy (Source: Parkinson 2006 link).
Although some scenes register with strong impact, there also seems to be a lot of padding, and the overall narrative is ultimately too diffused and unfocused for the film to have the sociological impact it so obviously desires (Source: Scheck 2006).
Compared to a documentary like Darwin’s Nightmare, which found disturbing visual analogues for the moral rot of global trade, Black Gold makes most of its points in words, not pictures. (Source: Murray 2006 link)
The movie’s approach reminds me that of the paternalistic and Western-centred [sic] 1970s-style theories according to which only colonialism and international market (i.e. ‘us’ the Western world) are to blame, and no others’ power and responsibilities are recognised. Likewise, there is no mention in the movie of the roles that the Ethiopian State could play in economic development and, for instance, education (Source: Chiari 2007 link).
[I] found it confusing to people outside the coffee field, partial, and intellectually not particularly honest…In my opinion, the film completely overlooks factors such as historical events (the Mengistu dictatorship which ruined plantations and the coffee free flow), inept procedures such as the bureaucracy surrounding the auctions system which hardly allows enough time for buyers to evaluate the lots), and also the ever present corruption, probably less in Ethiopia than in other parts of Africa, but then why generalize in the end with statements about Africa’s share of world trade? (Source: cofyknsult 2006 link).
We could not have anticipated the reactions to the Q&A. Among the first people to speak was a Park City resident. He referred to one particular scene in the film where coffee farmers are discussing whether they could afford the construction of a new school. He asked us how much it costs to build a school, and we estimated $10,000. He responded: ‘I’ll write a cheque for that right now and I challenge anyone else to do the same.’ After the screening he passed over a cheque to the Oromo Coffee Farmers Co-Operative Union, to assist with the construction of a new school. In an interview with a local newspaper shortly afterwards he said, ‘I know that world aid is a huge part of the problem. When you keep the Third World on a welfare system nobody feels very good about themselves. Education is an important part of the answer’ (Source: Francis & Francis 2006 link).
By the close of 2006, coffee prices had risen dramatically. Oromia had grown from thirty-five member cooperatives to almost one hundred. Over eighty thousand farmers were now enrolled in the largest and most successful co-op in Ethiopia. They had sold a remarkable ninety containers of Fair Trade coffee in 2006, yet there was considerably more coffee sold at conventional prices. Tadesse was the star of a documentary called Black Gold, and he was speaking at showings all over the USA and Europe. New elementary schools had been built by the farmers from Fair Trade premiums in Negele Gorbitu and Ilili Darartu, and a new health clinic was under construction in the former. A new water supply system is being designed for Ilili Darartu under the Miriam’s Well program. The farmers have asked me to help design a coffee museum for the birthplace of coffee. meanwhile, the Millenium Development Goals feature prominently in many glossy reports on corporate social responsibility (Source: Cycon 2007, p.32).
Since the documentary started showing around the world in June this year, Oxfam – an international development and relief agency – has co-sponsored its promotion in more than 75 cities and towns around the world. At the various screenings, hundreds of volunteers have been turning out in support of coffee farmers and have been handing out information and collecting thousands of signatures for the agency’s Big Noise campaign for fair trade (Source: Anon 2007).
Now, activists are increasingly discovering the value of film link-ups to better engage the public in an age of sensory overload. … This is how the development charity Oxfam became an associate partner in this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival. The group is a key mover behind Black Gold a documentary about Ethiopian coffee growers’ fight for reasonable prices in a global market dominated by commodity traders and multinational coffee chains. Oxfam doesn’t just endorse the film, which will have two screenings at the festival. Each will be followed by seminars where campaigners and guest speakers can elaborate on the issues brought up in the film. The organisation wanted to bring Black Gold to Hong Kong for some time, says Miranda Yip Pui-wah, campaign officer of Oxfam Hong Kong. ‘It’s only when we contacted its distributors that we discovered the Hong Kong International Film Festival was also in talks with them. We saw an opportunity and struck a deal with people from the festival.’ Through its slot in the festival, a highlight on Hong Kong’s cultural calendar, the group expects to gain far greater visibility than it would at a standalone event. ‘We hope the screenings will make a lot of noise,’ Yip says. ‘That’s very important for our campaign.’ The alliance with the festival began three years ago, when Oxfam had a minor role with its annual showcase for humanitarian documentaries. But this is the first time it has teamed up in such a high-profile fashion, says festival executive director Peter Tsi Ka-kei. ‘They reserved a block of tickets for Black Gold to distribute to patrons and supporters in order to get more people interested in the subject,’ says Tsi. ‘Through this collaboration, Oxfam can leverage our visibility to bring their message across to more people. It would probably work better for them than, say, paying a huge sum for a slot on TVB at 11pm. And they would be able to reach an audience which would otherwise be less receptive’ (Source: Tsui 2007b).
In these [screening/discussion events] farmers such as Tadesse … become the visual proof of the direct and humane market relationships that underlie the fair trade market. Public events celebrating fair trade ubiquitously feature coffee farmers, whose presence on a midwestern stage is a synecdoche for the global relationship (Source: Doane 2010 p.237).
Oxfam was intimately involved in the making of Black Gold. It provided help and advice to directors Marc and Nick Francis. And a central character in the documentary, Ethiopian farmers’ representative Tadesse Meskela, worked with Oxfam for years before he was introduced to the filmmakers two years ago. Such close working relationships between filmmakers and NGOs is increasingly common these days. Although documentaries have long been mainstays in film festivals, it’s only during the past few years that activists recognised the power of the medium among a young generation that’s more comfortable with images than text (Source Tsui 2007b).
Since 2001 Oxfam has worked with coffee farmers in Ethiopia and elsewhere to help secure a fairer deal for small scale producers. By getting a fairer share of the rich coffee profits, millions of coffee farmers would be lifted out of poverty and be able to afford food, schooling and better health care for their families. So please pledge to see the film at www.blackgoldmovie.com. If thousands of people pledge to see Black Gold, cinemas around the world will feel the demand for the film and will want to show it, so please ask your friends and family to sign up as well (Source: Anon ndb link).
Rodney North of Equal Exchange, a worker co-op for fair trade food and beverages, credits the supply chain films for raising public awareness on a more far-reaching and effective level than ad campaigns or news articles. ‘Our voice is drowned out by the corporations,’ he wrote in an e-mail. ‘So films like ‘Black Gold’ offer something we could never afford on our own.’ What’s more, he added, the visual nature of cinema punches up the message. Regarding Ethiopian coffee growers, he said, ‘Even for people who have read or heard about these farmers and their situation, these images really drive home the point in a much more powerful way’ (Source: Hornaday 2006).
The documentary was screened at 7 p.m. last Thursday in the University of Arkansas’s First Security Auditorium in Willard J. Walker Hall, followed by a question and answer session for a panel comprised of Tadesse Meskela, the general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union featured in the film; Paul Rice, founding president and CEO of TransFair USA; Matt Kistler, senior vice president of sustainability at Wal-Mart; and a representative from Cafe Bom Dia, a fair trade and organic coffee company. The panel was also on hand to explain the fair trade certification that Wal-Mart and Meskela’s cooperative group are involved in, which offers coffee farmers a 20 percent premium on their coffee — a floor price for the coffee they harvest. Their message to the audience was “Fair trade is better than aid,” citing incidents of self-sufficiency. The coffee harvested in southern Ethiopia will be sold by Wal-Mart under Sam’s Choice brand, which will include Fair Trade Certified House Blend, Espresso Roast and French Roast; Rainforest Alliance Certified Breakfast Blend whole bean and ground coffee; and Organic Swiss Water Process Decaffeinated, according to a CNNMoney.com report. The venture seeks to simplify the supply chain system by shipping roasted coffee directly from the origin. ”The difference is truly dramatic, in terms of the ability of those families to put food on the table, keep their kids in school, and to provide a better living for their kids and for their families,’ said Rice, who believe the coffee farmers refuse to sit back with arms crossed, waiting for an international agency to come solve their problems for them (Source: Reed 2008).
In the latest move by Ethiopian coffee growers to get a higher price for their beans, the Addis Ababa Government has hired a UK design agency to develop brand identities for their speciality coffees. The move comes after Ethiopia succeeded – in the face of US opposition by Starbucks – to gain trademarks for the coffees. Brandhouse will create an umbrella brand for Ethiopian Fine Coffees and separate brand identities for the high quality Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and Harrar varieties. This will help protect and ultimately promote one of the nation’s most valuable commodities. While Western consumers are paying sky-high prices for top quality coffee in bars and cafes, the value added to the beans has mainly benefited Western coffee marketers. The Ethiopian Government is fighting to recapture some of that value for the growers. The farmers hope branding will enable them to boost both consumer demand and price premiums for the varietals. ‘These brands are a promise to our customers, retailers and roasters that we will deliver good quality coffee,’ says Tadesse Meskela of Ethiopia’s Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union. Meskela is the subject of the film Black Gold, an expose of the multibillion dollar coffee industry which shows his journey round the world as he seeks a fair price for his growers’ beans. … Speaking to Marketing Week from Addis Ababa, he adds: ‘The brands can also protect the names of those speciality coffees so they are not used by growers in other countries. Through negotiating with speciality coffee buyers, we can obtain a better price for our products.’ The new logos will be unveiled next month at a meeting of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The brand launch comes after Ethiopia last year managed to obtain US trademarks for the three varietals, considered to be among the finest coffees in the world. Coffee chain Starbucks initially opposed the trademark requests. For years it has marketed the Sidamo variety through its cafes, commanding prices of up to $26 (#13) a pound. Yet Ethiopian farmers receive between 75 cents and $1.60 (38p-81p) per pound. Starbucks argued the trademarks would harm those farmers, potentially hiking prices and hitting demand. But after the intervention of Oxfam, which unleashed a ferocious lobbying campaign supporting Ethiopia’s trademark requests, Starbucks relented. The trademarks are owned by Ethiopia and it now has the task of policing use of the coffee varietals in markets around the world and promoting them as brands. The push will serve as a test for other developing nations seeking to turn their high-quality commodities into brands to boost the value the products command in Western markets. As an Oxfam spokesman says: ‘We would like this to be the first of many. It shouldn’t just be the large companies who reap the benefits from these commodities’ (Source: Anon 2008b).
Tadesse [said] the film has been shown on major Television stations in the USA, Japan, German and United Kingdom. He said it was absurd they could not do that in Ethiopia owing to reluctance by the Ethiopian Television, a state controlled media (Source: Anon 2008a).
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Compiled by Blayne Tesfaye & Julia Potter, edited by Jeff Bauer & Ian Cook (last updated September 2012). Page created for followthethings.com as part of the ‘Anthropologies of global connection’ course, Brown University.