THE BLOG

Black Gold -- Fair Trade, Sundance, and Starbucks' "Charm Offensive" in Park City

We're now on our way back to London, so for the first time we're able to start to reflect on the madness -- in a good way -- that was the Sundance Film Festival 2006.

At the end of last November, just after it was announced we had been accepted to the festival, our preparations began. From that point on it was a race against time to get the film completed and our marketing materials ready. The master tape was sent in the week that Sundance began!

Not having been to the festival before, it was difficult to know what to expect. However, we managed to meet up with some people we'd met some months before at the Documentary Composers Lab which is held in the Sundance Village -- one of the most creative environments we've had the opportunity to work in.

The Composers Labs put filmmakers and composers together to exchange musical ideas in the mountains of Utah. As it turned out, the composer we spent a few days with at the Lab ended up scoring the whole film. Over the next few months Andreas Kapsalis composed the music for the film in Chicago while we edited in London.

Since our screenings didn't begin until later in the festival, we were able to immerse ourselves in the Sundance experience -- the directors brunch was one of the highlights. All the directors were bussed out to the Sundance Village, 45 minutes from Park City. We were sitting next to Haskell Wexler who was telling us about his latest documentary Who Needs Sleep? At the brunch in the Sundance Resort, we heard Robert Redford passionately explain, on the 25th anniversary of Sundance, why supporting independent film is so crucial and why he continues to be so committed to supporting the development of new filmmakers.

A few days later we were joined in Park City by the rest of our crew including our Executive Producer Christopher Hird, Editor Hugh Williams, and Associate Producer Oistein Thorsen.

We were now feeling anxious about our first screening to the US public. Since the making of Black Gold, we had always hoped that we would have the opportunity to show it to the widest US audience as possible. After all, there could be some hope of changing the horrific reality of the lives of coffee farmers if the largest coffee-consuming nation in the world -- who drink over 400 million cups of coffee a day -- knew what really lay at the bottom of their cup.

The day finally arrived, Tuesday, the 24th: our World Premiere. It was a sell-out and more than 100 people were waiting for spare tickets. We were amazed by the turnout. To keep the spirit of our film alive, we had hooked up with a local coffee roaster -- Park City Coffee Roaster. They served free, fair trade Ethiopian coffee featured in our film to people in the ticket queues. This was especially appreciated at the other sell-out screening on midnight on Wednesday.

It was a relief to see the finished film on the big screen. It represented a major moment in this three-year journey that had taken us across the world.

We could not have anticipated the reactions to the Q&A. Among the first people to speak was a Park City resident. He referred to one particular scene in the film where coffee farmers are discussing whether they could afford the construction of a new school. He asked us how much it costs to build a school, and we estimated $10,000. He responded: "I'll write a cheque for that right now and I challenge anyone else to do the same." After the screening he passed over a cheque to the Oromo Coffee Farmers Co-Operative Union, to assist with the construction of a new school. In an interview with a local newspaper shortly afterwards he said, "I know that world aid is a huge part of the problem. When you keep the Third World on a welfare system nobody feels very good about themselves. Education is an important part of the answer." When we told our main character in the film of the gift, Tadesse, who runs the Coffee Union, was overwhelmed.

The thirst for information at the Q&A was incredible. Most people responded to the film with questions about how consumers can change the situation. Buying fairly traded coffee was one short-term solution. Others furthered the discussion by suggesting that for change to happen, countries like Ethiopia need to capture more of the market chain of coffee rather than just being suppliers of the raw bean. Investment is needed to build roasting and packaging plants; to have budgets to promote and export the final packaged product and penetrate key markets in consuming countries.

Currently, however, Africa's share of world trade stands at 1%. If that was just doubled it would generate over $70 billion per year -- five times what the continent receives in aid.

Our hope is for our film to, in some small way, act as a catalyst to ensure these questions are asked more often. We left our premiere both relieved that the film had had its first screening and exhausted. Outside the cinema we were greeted by five executives from Starbucks. It is important to stress that ours is not a film about Starbucks, nor just about coffee. However, the company's corporate communications executives were there to meet us and wanted to chat about what their company is doing in the coffee world. We declined. We were of the firm belief that our film was done and the opportunity to speak about the company's policies came . . . and went.

Here's why: For close to half a year while making the film, we tried relentlessly to get Starbucks to be involved in the film, but they declined to participate. However, throughout the week at Sundance, they sent people to every screening and actively courted the media. In his column in the Salt Lake Tribune, Sean P. Means wrote: "Starbucks went on a charm offensive, setting up interviews with Sandra Taylor, the company's senior vice president for corporate social responsibility (try fitting that on a business card). The company also put out a news release that reassuringly states that 'Starbucks believes that coffee farmers should make a living wage and be paid fair prices.' "

Yet at the end of yet another screening Starbucks presented us with pages of corporate spiel, which seemed to contradict that assertion. The figures showed that in 2004, the company was sourcing approximately 1.6% of its coffee under the fair trade scheme, while its website proclaimed that "Starbucks Announces Record December Revenues" up 22% during the same quarter of last year.

Starbucks, however, are only one of the players in the coffee market -- the most noticeable coffee retailer. Our film has a much broader focus: it looks at how the coffee farmers are losing out in the multi-billion dollar coffee industry. It does not actively take on Starbucks like Super Size Me took on McDonalds. All the other major coffee companies -- Nestle, Sara Lee and Kraft, Proctor and Gamble -- declined to be interviewed for this film.

Later in the week we met someone who also reacted strongly to the film. She told us that after seeing it she and her husband were divesting themselves of $10,000 worth of Starbucks stock. She felt it was the least she could do. Now she will only go to companies that source the majority of their coffee under the fair trade principles. We were stunned to near-speechlessness.

But a different reading of the film came from some of the key characters in the powerful American documentary The Trials of Daryl Hunt by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. The film centers around a brutal rape and murder case which convicted Darryl Hunt, who spent nearly twenty years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It is extraordinary film and acts as a chilling reminder of the institutional racism at the heart of the US justice system.

At the awards party we were fortunate to meet two people fundamental in securing the release of Daryl. They had seen Black Gold and were blown away by the story. They spoke about the parallels in the two films -- how The Trials of Daryl Hunt deals with national racism in the US justice system and how ours deals with the globalised racism maintained through a rigged international economy that undermines any sense of economic justice for the developing world, in particular Africa.

It took us nearly three years to complete the film but now that we are back from Sundance it feels like the real work is about to begin -- to ensure the film is seen by as many as people across the world as possible. In the meantime, get involved, and join in at www.blackgoldmovie.com.