Thursday, June 07, 2007

BLACK GOLD - poorly edited, poorly argued agit-doc

BLACK GOLD is another one of those earnest liberal agit-docs. This one rightly rails against the injustice of the coffee trade. I have said before that, with the exception of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, these agitdocs are a pretty futile exercise. They pick on subjects that are sitting ducks - so self-evidently unjust that no liberal can possibly object. Moreover, they are preaching to the converted. No self-respecting greedy capitalist bastard is going to pay money to see a movie whose avowed aim is to bring down the system. That said, I've seen some well-structured, fascinating docs over the last year, and whatever you say about Michael Moore, he's made it possible to get a theatrical release for political films.

The first thing to say is that BLACK GOLD is beautifully photographed by Marc and Nick Francis and Ben Cole. The scenes in the Ethiopian coffee plantations are exceptionally well-shot and I was amazed that the film-makers were using DV. The second thing to say is that, in Tedesse Meskela, they have found a charismatic figurehead for their cause. Meskela is an articulate, charismatic man who represents Ethiopian coffee producers and tries to cut out the middle men between the producers and the roasters. By doing so, he hopes to pass on more of the earnings from the finished product to the deeply impoverished producers.

But, sadly, the problems with this critically acclaimed-documentary are, to my mind, legion. First off, it is poorly structured, flitting back and forth between showing the poverty of the producers; the riches of the retailers; the New York Board of Trade where the commodity coffee price is set; the roasters.....It's a repetitive mess. Second, the film-makers do not interrogate their sources. A classic example is an interview with the Illy coffee people in Italy. Illy feel very self-satisfied because they pay more for coffee. This is NOT because they are bleeding-heart liberals. It's because they buy speciality coffees whose price is set away from the NYBOT. But the film-makers do not bring out this important distinction. As a result, the segment just looks like an advert for Illy!

Third, the documentary simply does not explain the process by which the producers get ripped off. It just keeps stating the fact over and over and over again. Which is silly, because it's self-evidently true so we don't need telling twice. There's a quick pass as the NYBOT and the WTO but the mechanisms are not explored. Indeed, the documentary seems as confused as the farmers as to how this injustice happens.

Issues that should have been explored include:
1. The difference between Value and Price
2. The reason why Africa planted "cash crops" in the first place
3. The reason why Africa remains a producer rather than a roaster i.e. why the value-added jobs do not take place in Africa.
4. A proper examination of the way in which the EU and US block free trade despite their rhetoric toward Africa, enforced with an iron fist by the World Bank
5. The difference between a commodity, and the mechanisms for setting a commodity's price and a luxury/speciality good and the mechanisms for setting its price.
6. The way in which multi-nationals pay supermarkets for shelf placement so that it's simply harder to find a fair-trade coffee.

So, BLACK GOLD is at best a useful start, but I was seriously disappointed at the poverty of the analysis and the rambling structure. Both contributed to the feeling that the film was dragging when in fact it was under 90 minutes long.

BLACK GOLD played London 2006 and Berlin 2007. It went on limited release in the US last October and is on release in the UK.

No comments:

Post a Comment