Jul 10, 2015

"Caffeinated": A New Documentary for Coffee Lovers

In Caffeinated, a young woman harvests the fruit that contains the seed or coffee bean.
(Still courtesy of Filmbuff.)

The coffee farmer, the bean, the roaster, the taster, as well as the espresso machine-maker and barista, all from different parts of the world, appear in a new documentary, Caffeinated, directed by Vishal Solanki and Hanh Nguyen. (It opens in theaters on July 14th.) Driven by an appreciation for coffee and American coffee consumption and culture—coffee is our most imported commodity—this feature-length debut is an entertaining look at one of the few handmade products in the world.

Coffee production has always been and still is a male-dominated enterprise, yet Caffeinated features the voices of many women, including the farmers of Las Hermanas (The Sisters) in Jinotega, Nicaragua, an Indian “taster”—just like a wine taster, she grades the product—and women entrepreneurs who have founded companies that support the sustainable development of coffee. In their interviews, it appears that Solanki and Nguyen also encouraged male farmers to emphasize the role played by female members of their family. This is most apparent in sequences shot in Central America in which farmers point to wives and daughters who are harvesting and sorting the cherry-like fruit from which the coffee bean is derived. Special attention is also paid, in the course of the documentary, to representing racial diversity.

Caffeinated is distinguished as well by the filmmaker’s visual sensibilities: Thoughtful use of light and camera angles to emphasize the beauty and color of the landscapes where coffee is grown, is also apparent in the sensuality with which the faces of farmers and their workers are photographed. Solanki and Nguyen also possess an eye for the symmetry of machines that roast, grind and steam coffee. While the documentary is beautiful to look at, and the co-directors are objective and journalistic, the editing is uneven. A sequence on the use of pesticides and its damaging effect on women’s health, for instance, draws no coherent conclusions, and often in the documentary, the narrator’s identity is unclear. Caffeinated is nevertheless impressive in its scope, and for the fact that it does not use music to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.

Those who enjoy Caffeinated will also appreciate Nick and Marc Francis’s Black Gold (2006), a fascinating study of the economics of the coffee trade. See the link to my interview with the filmmakers in “From My Archives: Interviews” (to the left of this column.) Thanks to Dropbox dropping the ball, you will need a log-in to access it.