Vince Talotta/Torstar photo

A cup of Ethiopian coffee — aka “black gold” — is poured (not a scene from Nick Francis and Marc Francis’ documentary Black Gold).

Black Gold

Directors: Nick and Marc Francis

*** 1/2 (out of five)

Coffee is the most popular drink in the world. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Only oil is a larger trading commodity worldwide than coffee. Four conglomerates — Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee — dominate the global coffee market. While coffee consumption has increased in the last few years, the price of coffee has reached a 30-year low.

These are the sort of facts that pepper Nick and Marc Francis’ documentary, Black Gold, a film that gets its title from the nickname coffee has gotten from its massive profitability. Unfortunately, as the Francis lads patiently show us, the growers of coffee in places like Ethiopia, where it accounts for the majority of the country’s export income, are getting the smallest cut of the profits. It’s a story that takes us from the trading floor of the New York commodities exchange to the original Starbucks in Seattle’s Pike Place Market to the farms of south and western Ethiopia.

Our guide for the journey is Tadese Mesekela, the manager of the Oromo Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union — one of the many small players trying to cut out the middlemen who take most of the profit in the chain that leads from the soil to the cup. It’s not hard to sympathize with Mesekela and his farmers; the story of Black Gold is an ageless one of impoverished Davids against a monolithic Goliath.

Black Gold requires some patience — the film moves at a deliberate, but far from breakneck pace, and requires some understanding of global markets, and especially the role of organizations like the World Trade Organization. In the filmmakers’ view, the real culprit isn’t the four multinationals who dominate the coffee market, but the WTO, which allows rich countries to subsidize agriculture in ways that poor countries can’t, and hooks the Third World on aid programs that stifle industry and trade.

While it would seem that the WTO and rich members like the U.S. and the EU are breaking a cardinal law of markets by divorcing price from demand, matters might be a bit more complex than Black Gold makes it seem. The film’s solution, however — educated consumers choosing to support Ethiopian growers and “fair trade” coffee with their consumer dollar — is far easier to understand, and by advocating this so starkly, Black Gold is probably as much a marketing campaign as a movie.