Category: Film

Black Gold

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007 | All Things, Film

After another trip to the bánh mì shop on Walker Street, I made my way to The Tank Space for Performing and Visual Arts for tonight’s screening of Black Gold.

The 2006 UK documentary examines the unjust conditions under which coffee is sold, tracking the fair trade movement as exemplified in the efforts of Tadesse Meskela, general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) in southern Ethiopia. The film follows as Meskela works tirelessly to secure equitable prices for 74,000 coffee farmers in his region.

Between 2001 and 2003, the price for coffee hit a 30 year low — a direct result of an acute glut in the world market linked to aggressive new producers, particularly in Vietnam, which in one decade went from a nonentity to becoming the second largest supplier of coffee beans, after Brazil. African farmers could no longer support themselves and famine spread throughout the coffee region. Schools closed for lack of funds, and many farmers were forced to uproot their coffee trees to replant more profitable chat, a narcotic widely used in East Africa.

In the conventional marketplace, producers in poor countries receive only a minuscule fraction of the total revenue; for every $3.00 cup of coffee sold at Starbucks, a farmer receives only about three cents. Most of the remainder is distributed among middlemen, especially the four multinational food conglomerates (Nestle, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee) who dominate the $80 billion retail industry. The fair trade system guards against price fluctuations created by commodity brokers, processors, creditors and exporters, and guarantees a living wage for producers of the commodity: for coffee farmers, at least $1.26 per pound of beans, as compared to the international market price of about $.50 per pound.

The Tank

For more, view the 13-minute video on Nicaraguan coffee farmers, produced by Equal Exchange, the largest for-profit Fair Trade company in the United States.

The decision to seek out Fair Trade Certified products makes an important and tangible difference in people’s lives. At the Q&A afterwards, with representatives from the New York Fair Trade Coalition and The Fair Trade Resource Network, much of the discussion revolved around Seattle-based juggernaut Starbucks.

SBUX corporate policy dictates that the company will brew a fresh cup of Fair Trade coffee for you upon request – a challenge taken up by several bloggers. In practice, though, the request is usually greeted with perplexed looks – and no Fair Trade coffee. (We tried this ourselves over the next couple of weeks in the financial district outlets with similar results.) According to a 2006 press release (.pdf), the company is committed to fair trade and to paying producers equitable prices for all of their coffee, which are often substantially above the prevailing commodity-grade as set by New York – regardless of labels and certifications.

In 2003, at the nadir of the coffee price slump, Dunkin’ Donuts became the first national brand to use exclusively Fair Trade Certified coffee in all their espresso-based beverages. Humanitarian agency Oxfam applauded the efforts, but note that the policy applies to espresso beverages only, which account for about 2% of the company’s coffee bean purchases. Baby steps.

The post-film reception of coffee, cookies and brownies:

Black Gold Bear

For an alternate view, read the recent Economist article arguing against Fair Trade on an economic basis, as it interferes with the invisible hand of the market.

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Monday, June 25th, 2007 | All Things, Film

The final film seminar of the season: Joshua, starring starring Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga as a perfect, privileged Manhattan couple, and Jacob Korgan as their 9-year old son, who has difficulty adjusting to the arrival of his new baby sister. Another film in the creepy-kid genre – see The Bad Seed and The Omen — which I tend to find too preternaturally disturbing to enjoy even when done well, which was not the case here.

At the post-film discussion: co-stars Celia Weston and Dallas Roberts.

Joshua cast

It took me a few minutes, but I finally recognized Roberts from 2004’s A Home at the End of the World – the independent film adaptation of a Michael Cunningham novel, perhaps better known as “that movie where [Colin Farrell]’s naked but it was apparently ‘too distracting’ so they’ve cut it out.” (Yeah, seriously.)

I’d seen Weston in perhaps a dozen film and television appearances without ever knowing her real name – a level of fame just short of stardom that the now-hiatused used to refer to aptly as “Hey! It’s That Guy!

When asked what inspired them to take on their respective roles of a flamboyant gay uncle and an evangelical Christian grandmother, Roberts jokingly (but candidly) responded, “Money is a great motivator.” Weston, for her part, concurred, citing one film part she had been hesitant to accept after reading the script, but ultimately, was glad she did; the movie went on become a “cash cow of residual checks,” thanks to its endless airings on television. Despite our pleadings, she tactfully refused to name the film. I’m pretty sure she was referring to How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.

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The burdens of genius

Monday, June 4th, 2007 | All Things, Film

Looking out the window of Yum Thai on West 44th Street:

Times Square neon

The penultimate film seminar of the season. Tonight: Vitus, Switzerland’s shortlisted submission to the 2006 Academy Awards. The dialogue is in Swiss German with English subtitles, making it the third consecutive foreign film shown this year. As with our last non-American film, there was no guest speaker, so host Scott Siegel led tonight’s post-screening discussion solo.

Scott Siegel

Childhood is often a struggle, but for Vitus (pronounced: VEE-tus), the highly precocious boy of the title, it is more complicated than for most. As a young piano prodigy, with an off-the-charts IQ, he is forced from an early age to figure out how to live with a gift that has become a burden.

He is preciously portrayed as a wide-eyed six-year old by Fabrizio Borsani in his acting debut. By the time he turns twelve, much of the joy seems to have been drained from young Vitus, now played by real-life Canadian-Romanian prodigy Teo Gheorghiu (who also happens to speak perfect Swiss-German.) Vitus’ well-meaning parents (Swiss stage actors Julika Jenkins and Urs Jucker), aggressively cultivate their only child’s talents, at the seeming expense of his personal development. In a lesser film, the couple would have been portrayed as nightmarish caricatures of stage parents; not so here. One senses quite vividly, that theirs is a close familial unit, borne of much love and (albeit sometimes misguided) support. In his classes, among teenagers who regard Vitus as a freak of nature, the boy alternates between arrogant and sullen – defense against his internal struggles with social awkardness and loneliness. Vitus’ primary companionship comes in the form of his kindly, eccentric grandfather, played by Bruno Ganz, an award-winning Swiss actor heretofore best known for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in 2004’s Der Untergang – Hitler und das Ende des Dritten Reichs (The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich). It is during their afternoons together that the germ of an idea forms in Vitus’ mind: as his grandfather advises, to decide what you must be, you sometimes have to part with things you love.

What follows is an elaborate ruse, in which Vitus feigns a head injury which renders him no longer gifted, or rather: absolutely normal. His mother, who has invested her entire life in nurturing his special genius, is bitterly disappointed. Vitus, however, is liberated, finally making friends his own age, and reveling in his new freedom. Almost imperceptibly, the film shifts tone from drama to almost comedy, to fantasy, as Vitus and his grandfather (his only co-conspirator) devise ways to employ their secret to the family’s financial advantage.

Along the way, there are some delightful scenes between the boy and his grandfather, and a few between Vitus and Isabel (Tamara Scarpellini), his former babysitter, now 19. When he invites her to a fancy restaurant to propose marriage, his argument is serious and utterly rational: informing her that she is the love of his life, and attempting to convince her that their seven-year age gap coincides perfectly with the difference in life expectancy between men and women, and with the discrepancy in the ages of their respective sexual peaks.

Haha, go, cougars!

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