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Black GoldIf you've never given much thought to the lives affected each time you choose one brand of coffee over another, allow this handsomely mounted documentary from British filmmakers Marc and Nick Francis to serve as a bracing, double-shot of reality. Focusing exclusively on the coffee-producing regions of Ethiopia — the so-called "birthplace of coffee" — the Francis brothers explore the long and unnecessarily convoluted chain that brings the area's highly prized coffee beans to the shelves of your supermarket, specialty store or Starbucks. Our guide through the manufacturing process — one that that effectively inserts as many middlemen between farmer and retailer as possible — is Tadesse Meskela, the manager of Ethiopia's Oromo Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. Meskela's union represents over 70,000 coffee growers and works to maximize their profits. The market prices for coffee are set by buyers and sellers in the financial capitals of New York and London, far from the growers who are most often unaware of the market rate, and at the time of filming, farmers' profits dropped to a 30-year low: One kilo of beans, which can brew up to 80 cups of $3-a-shot coffee nets the grower less than 23 cents. And yet over the last 15 years, retail sales of coffee have nearly tripled to $80 billion a year with four multinational corporations — Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee — dominating the market. Meskela seeks to increase the farmers' revenue and their standard of living — many communities don't have schools, clean water or nutritious food — by seeking out better markets, circumventing the unnecessary exporter-buyer-roaster-retailer chain and increasing awareness of fair trade among consumers. The film is tacitly unkind to the unthinking — the giddily idealistic manager of Seattle's original Starbucks is allowed to go on about how she's in the business of connecting people, unaware that the film in which she's going to appear is all about how her business actually serves to disconnect, isolate and exploit the lowliest workers on the production chain. And what about the loathed Starbucks? In its advertising literature, the company prides itself on engaging in socially responsible, fair-trade practices, but the film glosses over exactly how the coffee megacorp goes about getting its prized Ethiopia Sidamo bean. It does, however, point out that the Sidamo region is in the grips of a worsening famine without providing any details about its causes or the extent to which malpractice in the region's coffee-farming industry is to blame. Nevertheless, like DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE before it, the film serves as a valuable explanation of the ways in which the cultivation and exportation of a particular crop can affect the welfare of fragile countries, and offers plenty of things to think about the next time you're waiting in line for that triple-shot mocha frappucino.  --Ken Fox


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