Saturday, November 18, 2006

Black Gold

Playing through Wednesday, November 22, 2006 at The Roxie (3117 16th St., San Francisco)

This documentary film about the manager of the Oromia co-op in Ethiopia is technically produced quite well. The problem is that it seems misguided: it doesn't present a definite solution to the obvious plight of the coffee farmers (other than raising the price of the crop, which we knew anyway, and all but the worst dullard could figure that out); it doesn't really present a definite source of the problem (though it does attempt to villify the WTO, and while I'll agree that there is plenty to villify there, I don't think they are the entire source of the problem); and it doesn't quite seem to know its target audience (is it the educated or the uneducated consumer?).

The basic format of the film plays scenes from Ethiopia against scenes of the coffee-drinking 'yuppie elitists' in Europe and North America in a back-and-forth manner that can seem like the viewer is actually watching a tennis match. The format seems jarring, as the viewer is taken to London, Trieste, New York, and Seattle within about 25 minutes. A scene of the World Barista Championships seems oddly placed and pointless within the context of the film. I don't know how many of the people in the audience actually had ever heard about the WBC or knew just what was going on (it was not well-explained); the confused giggles in the audience during this scene were clearly indicative that most of the people watching had no clue about barista competitions. Shoutouts to Mireya Jones (who had a speaking part), Marcus Boni (who was seen at the judges table), and probably a few other people I've met but neglected to spot through the rapidly-moving camera lens.

An interview with Dr. Ernesto Illy was possibly one of the best moments in the film. Dr. Illy was coherent and intelligent and quite fluent in English. He obviously knows and cares about quality coffee a great deal. Again, however, this scene had little to do with the basic premise of the film.

The film hits the "Big Four" pretty hard for buying commodity coffees and for utilizing the New York "C-price" in their purchasing decisions. Of course, it was never mentioned that the Oromia co-op doesn't produce commodity coffees; they produce top-quality Sidamos and Yirgacheffes (stuff that will never make an appearance in a can of, e.g., Maxwell House). Other than the WTO and the C-price, no other potential problem-sources are mentioned (perhaps excess Vietnamese production could be discussed, though again that doesn't really affect the price of top-quality Ethiopian arabica).

The final scene took place in a wheat-packaging and exporting center in Djibouti. A strange place to finish this movie; I thought the film was about coffee in Ethiopia.

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