It’s the age of the food documentary. Films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and television programs like Mind of a Chef are commanding big audiences. Now that specialty coffee is suddenly enjoying a place in the culinary limelight it was only a matter of time before it became the subject of a documentary. The rather aptly titled A Film About Coffee is poised to fill the void.
A Film About Coffee is the first feature-length work of director Brandon Loper. In his words, the film “is a love letter to, and meditation on, specialty coffee. It examines what it takes, and what it means, for coffee to be defined as ‘specialty.’” For Loper this entails sitting down with some of specialty coffee’s leading experts and traveling to Honduras and Rwanda to visit coffee farmers.
A Film About Coffee begins with a close-up of a siphon brewer slowly heating up. As Brian Hall’s ethereal soundtrack slowly builds, it becomes clear we’re not just watching the opening credits: we’re witnessing a serendipitous moment of transcendent beauty. The scene serves as visual representation of the film’s thesis: something as mundane as a cup of coffee can be complex and meaningful.
The backbone of the film is a series of interviews with a panel of coffee experts. Peter Giuliano explains how the commodification of coffee had a disastrous effect on both coffee quality and the flourishing of coffee producing communities. Special coffee pioneer George Howell displays a wealth of knowledge about current coffee brewing trends and the events that led to them. Blue Bottle’s James Freeman offers a decidedly phenomenological perspective on coffee brewing.
The most compelling parts of the film happen at origin. The viewer is invited behind the scenes to join then-Stumptown green buyer Darrin Daniel at the Huye Mountain washing station in Rwanda. The film invokes wonder and curiosity as the coffee is hand picked, sorted, and transported by bicycle to be processed. Perhaps these scenes are so effective because the filmmakers carefully avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of origin stories: romanticizing the agrarian lifestyle and exploiting the plight of the farmers. For these farmers coffee is a cash crop. Their incentive to maintain quality are primarily financial. Growing coffee is brutal work, and the large majority of those involved in producing it have a much lower standard of living than those who consume it. Yet Loper portrays his subjects with pride and dignity. The work is hard, but the producers find joy in it, most clearly seen as Rwandan workers turn washing the coffee cherries into a sort of dance.
Perhaps the greatest short coming of the film is the scope. Although the film makers traveled to Rwanda, Japan, and Honduras to make the film, notably missing are non-American voices explaining the craft coffee movement. The obvious exception is Katzu Tanaka of Bear Pond Espresso, but he appears primarily as much-needed comic relief. Viewers are in awe of the ceremony of a traditional Japanese kissaten, but it’s James Freeman’s narration that interprets the event. Every project must set limitations, but the film would have benefited from a representative of the Nordic or English coffee community.
In all A Film About Coffee is an ambitious debut from director Brandon Loper. The specialty coffee community should be proud and thankful to have such an absorbing film telling their story.