Nick Francis: The world coffee market is dominated by a handful of corporations -- Kraft, Nestle, Proctor And Gamble, Sara Lee.... Black Gold is the first feature film that’s been made on the coffee industry. In some respects scrutiny has not been brought to bear on the coffee industry in the same way it has on the textile industry and others. And that’s why reactions from companies like Starbucks have brought issues further into the limelight. Because they’re worried if consumers start to wonder what’s behind their coffee cup, it’s going to change how consumers relate to the product. It’s not actually the story that’s being told by some companies. There is another story and Black Gold tries to tell that other story.
GS: Had you and brother Marc Francis, Co-Director/Producer of the film, been considering exploring any other global commodity before you hit on coffee?
NF: The film could have been made about diamonds, or cotton, or rubber. But coffee has that unique place in our day-to-day lifestyle. It’s a story everyone can relate to. And America is the largest coffee-consuming nation in the world.
GS: In that respect, I imagine in Africa you also came face-to-face with a number of issues not-covered in the film. Such as concerns around pesticides, issues of sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and others which Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International or The Rainforest Alliance address by providing certification to those farms that meet various criteria as a producer.
NF: Yes we did and they did lie outside the scope of the film. Not that those aren’t very important issues. The central point was if there is a commercial reason why a company needs to be seen to pay more attention around issues of sustainability and ethics, it’s a financial need. I.e. if the image of the company is going to be compromised if seen to be not doing it, then they’ll do something because that affects the bottom line.
GS: Like TreeHugger, you often stress your interest in bringing your chosen subject-matter into the mainstream, what does that mean to you and how do you accomplish that in terms of filmmaking craft?
NF: We made a film which is not a niche issue because there are 2 billion cups of coffee that are being drunk everyday. It’s the most valuably traded commodity in the world after oil. It’s worth 80 billion dollars a year. Coffee is one of those unique products or commodities which we enjoy every single day that inextricably links us to the global economy. And our approach was basically trying to take people through a journey of their daily cup of coffee. Given the consumer world which we’re all dominated by, how do we connect with and then reconnect with what’s happening in the world. That’s what we’re trying to do as filmmakers. Film is a uniquely powerful way of doing that and it speaks in an international language that can reach people all over the world.
GS: The engine of cross-cutting between the to different worlds of western consumers and the African coffee producers, was that a device you developed during the editing or the film or was that designed into the film before you began shooting?
NF: We wanted to tell a story that links our consumer lifestyle in the west to what’s going on in Africa. But it was both in the cutting and in the making because one minute we’re in Ethiopia filming with coffee farmers in some of the celebrated regions, the next thing we’d be filming the Commodities Exchange in New York. So we actually lived that juxtaposition. It wasn’t just something that we subsequently thought about, we felt it as we were making it, and that was the most alarming thing. Being one minute in a coffee farming area in Ethiopia, in the area of Sidamo or Yirgacheffe, areas that are celebrated around the world by coffee experts as producing some of the best coffee in the world, and the farmers there are facing a humanitarian crisis. And yet you cross to the other side of the world, in the western world in the consuming countries, and the companies that are actually processing and marketing the coffee are earning more now than they ever have done. So that’s the juxtaposition we wanted to convey. Who’s winning and who’s losing in the global economy. And not everybody’s winning.
GS: But there’s an even-handedness to the shots you use to show the western consumers blandly drinking their café coffees. That generous choice reminds me of one of the things Gandhi struck on during his time in South Africa after having been assaulted by a mob of racists. When asked wasn’t he enraged with what had been done to him, he replied that if the people in that mob actually understood what they were doing, they would be ashamed of themselves and wouldn’t want to do it any more. Is your selection of these shots and the tone of these shots in effect one way that the art of filmmaking becomes activism?
NF: At the end of the day making a film is an active move. I questioned whether there was a distinction between the two.
GS: But did it ever get tricky not crossing the line between aesthetic concerns, say beautiful cinematography, and the need to effectively communicate the issues to the audience?
NF: We tried to make a film with really high production values. We had a fantastic editor, composer…so that as a film first and foremost, it could be enjoyed by people -- to go beyond the people who are already interested in this issue. And to do that you’ve got to make a film that stands up next to any other cinematic film that exists out there. That was our challenge.
GS: So the choice of including scored music in a non-fiction film was meant to further audience accessibility without however underlining and tugging at emotions.
NF: In terms of the music, it was part trying to create a cinematic experience, but crucially we didn’t want the film to sound like something that played into the African stereotype. We wanted to change that on its head and do something where the music is much more about the experience more than it is about the specific country. And yet infuse African sounds into the soundtrack because at the end of the day the main protagonist of the film is an Ethiopian coffee farmer. And so it was very much to integrate original African sounds recorded within the region into quite like a caffeinated sound if you like. Which motivated the narrative, but not necessarily reflects it in a very literal way. It’s not a literal interpretation, but responds to the feeling of the film.
GS: What advice would you give the filmmakers entering our Convenient Truths contest?
NF: To get on and do it. Just the doing of it, the making of it, getting it out there. That process, don’t underestimate it. Not thinking too much, just believing your idea and getting on with it. In 2003, when the humanitarian crisis in the coffee farming areas of Ethiopia was reaching a peak, we couldn’t hang around and wait for commissioning editors at television stations to turn round and say ‘this is an idea you should run with.’ Because we owned our own equipment, we just put our own resources in, and went out there at started telling the story. The form and the structure, and the approach was to try and make a film as much as we possible that was structured around the viewpoint of someone in Ethiopia, in Africa the birth place of coffee, rather than someone who’s come over there to help. The story is about people there who are actually doing the stuff themselves.