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Coffee doc aims to tip global scales

Nan Chalat-Noaker Record Editor

The owners of Park City Coffee Roaster, Robert and Ray Hibl, made a commitment to buy fair trade beans when they started their business and they became certified Fair Trade Roasters in November of 2004. Through their efforts to educate customers about the importance of buying from companies that guarantee farmers a fair price for their work, Park City Coffee Roaster has increased its sales of fair trade coffee from 10 percent to 65 percent of all the coffee they sell. And, according to Robert Hibl, two of their biggest customers are Deer Valley and Sundance Resort.

This year, the brothers met a pair of kindred spirits.

Nick and Marc Francis have spent the last three years documenting the plight of Ethiopian coffee growers and their efforts to get a decent price for their product. Their film, "Black Gold," is premiering at this week’s Sundance Film Festival in the World Documentary competition.

With compelling images from three continents, Nick and Marc Francis take the audience on a tour of the entire process from coffee tree to coffee cup. In the course of making "Black Gold" they highlight the cultural contrasts between Ethiopian workers hand-sorting beans, an exclusive cappuccino competition, the frantic floor of a coffee exchange, upscale Seattle coffee bars and an Ethiopian aid station for starving children. They also collected dramatic footage from a world-trade meeting in Cancun, Mexico, where several Third World countries staged a protest over what they perceived as price fixing by European and American corporations.

The hero of the film is Tadesse Maskela, a one-man labor activist/trade negotiator/sales and marketing team, whose mission is to find additional buyers for his cooperative’s high-quality beans and, ultimately, to set a high enough price to help improve his village’s desperately poor living conditions. The Francis brothers follow Maskela around the globe as he rallies his farmers to maintain higher quality controls and as he meets with national trade representatives to explain how their regulations unfairly drive down the cooperative’s price per kilo.

The filmmakers admit they have a clear agenda when it comes to promoting fair trade but they are reluctant to point fingers at specific retailers. Nevertheless, there are several sequences of middle-class Americans blithely sipping from Starbucks-jacketed cups, presumably not made with Maskela’s beans. According to Marc Francis, "Our film is about the international coffee trade and the differences between the haves and the have-nots. The ‘haves’ being the big international conglomerates and the ‘have-nots’ being the coffee farmers."

When asked about Starbucks’ reaction to the film, Nick Francis will say only that "they have seen the film and they are concerned."

He does not expect the film to have the same effect on Starbucks that "Supersize Me," another Sundance documentary had on McDonald’s. "This story is so much bigger than Starbucks," he added.

On Monday, the Francis brothers stopped by the Eccles Center to visit with the Hibls, who are selling Maskela’s Oromia Cooperative coffee in the lobby. They were anxiously awaiting their first screening. "We are really anxious to engage with the audience and to see their response," said Nick adding that, he hopes the film will be the first in a trilogy of documentaries about the effects of global economics.

"Black Gold" is scheduled to screen tonight, Jan. 25 at midnight at Holiday Village Cinemas, Thursday, Jan. 26 at 6:15 p.m. at Holiday Village Cinemas and Sunday, Jan. 29 at 10 a.m. at Sundance Village.

And for those inspired by the film to support "trade not aid" for Ethiopian coffee growers, Park City Coffee Roaster fair-trade coffees, including Oromia Cooperative, are available locally at Dan’s Food, Albertsons, Deer Valley, Sundance and the Alpine Internet Caf .


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