Producer Lesley Chilcott knows a thing or two about influential films. In 2006, she partnered with Davis Guggenheum on An Inconvenient Truth, the Academy Award-winning documentary, and followed that up in 2010 with Waiting for Superman about the public school system. In between that, she worked on "A Mother's Promise," which featured Barack Obama and premiered at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Most recently, Chilcott directed A Small Section of the World, a documentary about a village of women coffee producers in Costa Rica. It premieres Dec. 19 in some theaters and will be available on Amazon, Hulu and iTunes. She spoke with The Story Exchange about women's empowerment, the business of coffee, and how a cup of java can transform lives.
Edited interview excerpts follow.
The Story Exchange: How did you get involved in the film?
I feel like the story found me. The entertainment company Green Light Media in West Hollywood, Calif., told me about these women who built a coffee mill. Illy Coffee, which sponsored the firm, had heard about it through one of their agronomists [an expert in field production]. My husband and I live part of the year in Costa Rica, and we have a small tree farm. The fact that it was about women and in Costa Rica, I was instantly in.
The Story Exchange: What's the film about?
In the early 1990s, the price of coffee fell below the cost to grow it. Many local farmers had to abandon their fields. Because the area is so remote, all the men in the village left in search of work. All the women were left with their kids and their babies. They said, "We can sit around and wait, or we can do something." They decided to mill the coffee themselves and control the pricing. The first year of roasting, they [accidentally] burnt it. They got mold. But the next year they produced a high-enough quality coffee to sell to Illy. They've grown every year and they've been selling more and more coffee. They've been able to have nicer roads, and the school is painted.
The Story Exchange: What are you hoping to show in the film?
I learned that 125 million people worldwide work in coffee, and most is done by women but only 15% own the land or are in leadership positions. If women are taught how to negotiate or how to take the coffee to market, it is a direct route out of poverty.
The Story Exchange: What is your favorite part of the film?
There is a section of the film where we actually filmed closeups of how to make coffee. It's not something most people are familiar with -- surprising, considering that most people drink two to three cups a day. We are so disconnected from where our food comes from.
The Story Exchange: It figures that a woman director would make a movie about women. But in the film industry, there are so few women directors. Why is that?
I don't know. There were times when I was literally the only female on set when I first started. We've made strides. In TV in particular, there's been a lot of progress. In the role of director, we are going to see more and more women, because more films are done indepently -- and that's more entrepreneurial in nature. Women are good at that.
The Story Exchange: What are you working on next?
It's #GirlsInTech. There's a competition every year for young women called Technovation. They have 12 weeks to write and create an app that solves a problem in their local community. Last year, the team from Moldova one, with an app that tracked hepatitis A in the local water supply. I will follow some of the teams. These girls are completely transformed by the experience. They realize: They can do it.
Below, watch a trailer for A Small Section of the World, featuring an original song by Alanis Morissette.