Americans' love affair with coffee has been espoused by everyone from Oliver Wendell Holmes to David Letterman.
But, as Nick Francis notes, our passion for java connects us to a larger issue: the plight of the impoverished Ethiopian farmer.
With his brother Marc, Francis produced and directed Black Gold, a documentary meant to expose the $80 billion global coffee industry's financial injustice toward the African farmers who support it. Currently making the art-house rounds since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the film has been accompanied by a hot-button outreach effort spearheaded by the brothers.
Francis launched London-based production company Speak-it Films in 2002. While the brothers' previous movies have all centered on social issues, he says this is the first one to generate such buzz.
"We were trying to make a film that questions basic assumptions," he explains. "How does what's going on in Africa relate to one's day-to-day life?
"The coffee shop is so central to our lifestyle," he adds. "It brings a new audience to these issues."
To that end, Black Gold - which follows the globe-trotting manager of the 70,000-member Oromia Coffee Farmers co-op in his search for a better market price - is PR in and of itself.
But Francis has also developed partnerships with groups like the film's US distributor, California Newsreel, and human-rights nonprofit Oxfam America, to help extend the dialogue beyond the theater. Outreach efforts range from distributing educational materials in independent coffee shops to speaking engagements featuring Black Gold's central figure.
Francis hopes his efforts will be "a catalyst for renewed debate on how trade is done with Africa."
Though the film is not blatantly critical of any one corporation, it does name several which "declined or didn't respond" when asked to participate in the movie. That, Francis says, raises questions as to ethics and transparency.
Since the film's debut, however, the Francis brothers have been invited to participate in BBC-aired dialogues with representatives of Kraft and Sara Lee. They also met with Starbucks executives at the company's Seattle headquarters.
Those talks "gave us a chance to [ask] questions that we get daily," Francis says. And though he notes that many issues were not discussed, the fact that the meetings happened at all "underlines the power of film," he says. "A movie can be an agent for change and spark debate across the world."
"The film did an amazing job of opening [Americans'] eyes to the reality of small-scale coffee farmers," says Nicole Chettero, PR manager for Oakland, CA-based TransFair USA, third-party certifier of fair-trade products in the US.
"We've encouraged people to see the film and talk about it," she adds. "Ultimately, consumer demand is going to drive change."
As for the corporations mentioned in the film, Chettero says "all carry some Fair Trade Certified products [and] are getting more and more involved" via marketing, and consumer and employee education. "Little efforts all have a ripple effect," she notes.
For Francis, though, little efforts aren't enough. Still, Fair Trade Certified coffee comprises the fastest-growing segment of North America's $11 billion specialty coffee market, according to TransFair USA; retail sales grew from $50 million in 2000 to nearly $500 million last year. If that is any indication, consumers are taking a closer look at what's behind their lattes.
"Corporations have started to understand that it's an issue consumers care about," Francis says. Whether the film's message has truly resonated "remains to be seen," he admits. "[But it has] put on the global agenda an issue that isn't generally talked about."
Speak-it Films, cofounder
Channel 4 Television, London, freelance director