As coffee drinkers know, not all beans are equal, but the meaning of inequality gets an entirely different spin in Marc and Nick Francis' handsome and astute doc, "Black Gold." The Brit brothers study where some of the world's finest beans -- including Harar, from southern Ethiopia -- are grown and how they're marketed, and ask why people producing such a first-class product live in near-starvation conditions. The complicated answers are too great for any single feature doc to encapsulate, but pic's educational value and filmmaking prowess assure it a good fest season followed by a fine vid harvest.
"Black Gold" tells of the fair-trade coffee movement, in which growers arrange to directly receive a higher percentage of sales revenues by cutting out as many middlemen as possible.As rep of the Oromo Coffee Farmers Co-op Union, which embraces 74 southern Ethiopian co-ops and more than 70,000 farmers, Tadesse Meskela travels between the grassroots and the international market buying his groups' prized beans. He's in the ideal position to observe the growers' thin margin of survival and, contrapuntally, third-party brokers repping such coffee giants as Nestle and Kraft -- in tandem with the coffee commodity exchanges in New York and London, where daily prices are set -- working to maintain low prices.
In the background is the decade-long explosion in demand, which has turned such once-humble affairs as Starbucks into symbols of global Yank dominance. Rather than venting and indulging in easy anti-corporate pot shots, sober pic is more interested in Meskela's honest efforts to work every angle to get the co-ops the best possible return by bypassing the commodity exchanges and working closely with buyers.
Among the pic's paradoxes is its portrayal of Starbucks as a giant corporate interest determined to keep the coffee commodity price down -- a boon for consumers, a bane for growers. But the pic fails to note that the coffee giant, which also sells fair-trade beans, is perhaps most responsible for bringing the movement to the attention of coffee drinkers.
In Italy, Illy Coffee founder Ernesto Illy is seen as a gourmet brand and a major buyer who avoids the commodities market to give growers a better percentage. Still, scenes with Illy play more informatively than like an ad for his label.
The Francises are aces behind the camera, displaying an elegant sense of composition that makes their subject visually ravishing. Andreas Kapsalis' gorgeous score lends doc a grand quality.
Camera (color, DV), Marc Francis, Nick Francis; editor, Hugh Williams; music, Andreas Kapsalis; supervising sound editor, Gerard Abeille; associate producers, Claire Lewis, Oistein Thorsen. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary, competing), Jan. 26, 2006. Running time: 77 MIN.