By Patrick Ward
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 314

Black Gold/Fast Food Nation

This article is over 14 years, 8 months old
Directors Nick and Mark Francis/Director Richard Linklater
Issue 314

From Bowling for Columbine through The Corporation and Super Size Me, the market for progressive filmmakers has blossomed over the last decade. We now see the release of two very different additions to the radical genre.

Black Gold charts the journey of coffee, from the Ethiopian bean farmers, to the stock exchange traders. It is the story of a sack of beans costing a few cents transformed into hundreds of $3 cappuccinos.

Tadesse Meskela, the general manager of Ethiopia’s Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, embarks on an international search for a fairer deal for the 74,000 farmers he represents.

It is heart-wrenching to see the plight of the Ethiopian farmers, living in appalling conditions, with scant food and little access to clean water. The international monetary system has them in its grip, and it’s impossible for Meskela to use his business savvy to change that.

Black Gold sets out to be non-polemical, but it would seem that the answer offered is for consumer power to push for fair trade. They show footage of the 2004 World Trade Organisation talks in Cancun, along with the disgraceful bullying by the richer nations towards African delegates. But the thousands of protesters flocking the streets outside the conference hall did not get a look in – a far greater force for change than altering your shopping habits in Asda.

It is impossible to doubt the good intentions of the filmmakers, but the film is ultimately disjointed and leaves you unsatisfied.

This brings me to the other – far more disappointing – attempt. If you have read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and I strongly suggest that you do, you may find this as difficult to swallow as a semi-fried McNugget. The book is to the movie what a cow is to a Big Mac: devoid of its original beauty in preparation for the mass market.

The book was a factual history of the fast food industry, a modern radical classic. The movie is a fictional account propped up with Hollywood’s finest, carefully avoiding brand names and the awful truth of the situation. Maybe if I had not read the book I would have liked the film far more, but there’s enough dirt on McDonald’s and Burger King to stick to the multinationals like an overcooked Apple Pie to the roof of your mouth, so why the cop-out in using the fake brand “Mickey’s”?

Schlosser said he didn’t want to make a documentary film, despite repeated requests from filmmakers. Why? Was anyone turned off by the documentary style of Fahrenheit 911, or An Inconvenient Truth? If you are going to make a fictional reworking of a movie, at least try to make it well, instead of relying on stars such as Avril Lavigne, Ethan Hawke and Bruce Willis.

Apparently, these actors were touched by the book which led them to the project. I couldn’t help but remember that Willis has, for example, also called for a military invasion of Colombia to stop drug trafficking. Not someone I would call an ally.

The plot is about the tenuously linked lives of those affected by the industry, from the immigrants forced to work in horrific conditions on the firm’s outsourced “kill floors” to one of the directors of “Mickey’s” in his investigation into how cow manure ends up in the meat patties.

The one act of subversion in Fast Food Nation – which I won’t reveal for fear of spoiling what plot there is – carried out by a bunch of unrealistically worthy students, is unsuccessful. It almost looks like a cautionary tale against direct action. If you are looking for inspiration, this isn’t it. Instead it almost seems like an attempt to cash in on anti-corporate sentiment.

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