Ethics Film Series

This past week, we are officially halfway through with the Ethics Film Series for 2016. The first three screenings of Black Gold, Wall-E, and Chef’s Table sparked interesting dialogues.

When Louis C.K. introduced the documentary short film category at the Oscars this weekend saying “all [documentary short films] do is tell important stories,” he suggested that documentaries are powerful pieces, usually not conceived to make a profit, that can educate and influence change. Black Gold is a documentary that focuses on the specific challenges faced by coffee growers in Ethiopia. Although the film is now 10 years old and slightly dated, it tells the story of Tadesse Meskela, “one man on a mission to save his 74,000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy. As his [Ethiopian] farmers strive to harvest some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market, Tadesse travels the world in an attempt to find buyers willing to pay a fair price. Against the backdrop of Tadesse’s journey to London and Seattle, the enormous power of the multinational players that dominate the world’s coffee trade becomes apparent. New York commodity traders, the international coffee exchanges, and the double dealings of trade ministers at the World Trade Organization reveal the many challenges Tadesse faces in his quest for a long term solution for his farmers.”   The movie sparked a lively discussion about how the supply chain can influence agricultural choices farmers make. Viewers also debated how, as a consumer, to approach different certifications such as “fair trade” or “organic.” Counter Culture, a Durham-based coffee roasting company that aspires to be on the forefront of ethical practices in coffee production, facilitated the post-screening dialogue.

Tim brewing coffee

Counter Culture kicked off the night with an educational brewing demonstration before the film. The coffee experts set up their equipment with deft hands in less than ten minutes. The arrangement looked like a science experiment complete with scales and beakers. Students passing by Griffith Theater and moviegoers were able to try different roasts from Ethiopia. Tim Hill, Counter Culture’s Head of Coffee, Meredith Taylor, Counter Culture’s Sustainability Manager, and Claire Fox, a Forestry and Environment Management student who is pursuing a Masters, led the discussion after the after the film.

Tim (L) Meredith (M) Claire (R)

Although the film suggested that there were too many middlemen in the supply chain, the trio argued that each role was important for the product to get to consumers. They self-identified that as roasters they were halfway between consumers and farmers and recognized the importance to provide education to both sides of the chain. Transparency is not a common thing for companies to provide, yet this is what Counter Culture is striving to accomplish with their sustainability and transparency reports. It was apparent that the film caused attendees to think more critically about how to purchase the “best” ethical coffee, something that is typically considered a commodity good. Although one woman expressed her frustration that today’s labels make purchasing difficult, the conversation ended on a note of hope for the ethical advances already made in the coffee industry.

The screening of Wall-E attracted not only students, but families with small children. The discussion afterwards was spearheaded by Dirk Phillipsen and Kati Henderson. They used this Disney/Pixar full-length cartoon to talk about environmental themes, and generated a sophisticated discussion that may have gone over the children’s heads. Phillipsen opened up the conversation by talking about the Supreme Court’s ruling that had come out that day. SCOTUS temporarily halted the Clean Power Plan’s efforts to regulate coal emissions. The 5-4 decision granted a request by 27 states, several energy companies, and multiple business groups to halt implementation and enforcement of federal regulations that would curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and to block the Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which also mandates a shift to renewable energy from coal-fired electricity, until the court battle over the Plan’s legality is resolved by the federal appeals court.

Phillipsen pointed out how the United States’ lack of commitment to the environment, as a world leader and major pollutant emitter, may have dire consequences for the COP21 Agreement. Following suit, other countries may not be convinced that they should be reducing their emissions. Phillipsen stated his fear that we, as a planet, are on “a speeding train headed for a cliff” because we are producing too much pollution and CO2, and there is little significant action to curb this pathway of destruction.

Later in the evening, our talk shifted to discussing privatization of water and how governments should regulate private companies to prevent future incidents like Flint from occurring without impeding private companies from providing services.

The allegorical dystopia portrayed in Wall-E and the chronicle of coffee grower’s plight in Black Gold highlighted different contemporary social issues we face and allowed for an opportunity to reflect critically on our impact on the here and now, and on the future, through the choices we make. The goal of the Ethics Film Series is not to leave viewers cringing in their seats about all the negative things occurring in the world. Rather, the film and discussion Series invites us to spend a few hours looking through different windows on the world— whether via a documentary on “real” systems, like the coffee supply chain, or fictional imaginings of the future that are based in current trends, like the world portrayed in Wall-E. Both of these perspectives give us some purchase on here and now. They allow us to “escape” our own place, but hopefully they don’t exactly let us off the hook, either. We get a little more sense of what it means to eat and live in the present. Screening a film permits us to focus on all the things going in our communities, country, and around the world when we are juggling our own personal lives.