Archive » February 9, 2012
Chocolate’s dark secret
By SaraLloyd Truax, Staff Writer
Every now and then, some small thing will come along, plant the seed of a thought in your mind and, before you know it, your life is forever changed.
That may be the circumstance every documentary filmmaker longs for, but few achieve. Kum Kum Bhavnani’s Nothing Like Chocolate – which premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival – meets that standard, and so much more. In fact, her carefully metered story telling is so richly profound, it’s hard to fit her endeavor neatly into the documentary category.
A quick skim of definitions on the Internet leads generally to the conclusion, that although a broad category, a documentary is a nonfictional motion picture intended to depict a “real” subject, primarily for the purpose of instruction or creating a historical record. Nothing Like Chocolate does both.
The film tells the true and ongoing story of the Grenada Chocolate Company Ltd., which was founded by Mott Green with the assistance of Doug Browne in 1999. The idea was simple: Organic cocoa farmers ethically provide raw materials to a chocolate-makers’ cooperative which – in a nearly completely green process – transforms it into some of the finest chocolates available.
But the film is about so much more than chocolate. It is more than just a story of how one man, one company, from beans to bar transforms the cocoa fruit with a healthy blend of ethics and love. (Yes, chocolate – though technically a vegetable, experts say – is made from the seeds of fruit.) But the many health benefits of chocolate are glossed over in the movie.
Narrated by Susan Sarandon, Bhavnani’s piece provides layers of storytelling – all deeply personal and engaging. From the children on the Ivory Coast enslaved to harvest cocoa, to the belief of a Grenada teen that hard work should be left to old people (like her mother), the story is told with poignancy and humor, weaving through the overlapping personal lives of many involved.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a message, though it may be one the average viewer would rather not hear. As still photos – with a clandestine feel – flash across the screen, and moviegoers squirm in their seats, the simple sad truth is laid out. Although difficult to document accurately, it is believed in the Ivory Coast – perhaps the largest country of origin for cocoa – up to 15,000 children per year are enslaved from neighboring countries to harvest cocoa, coffee and cotton, says Bama Athreya, Director of the International Labor Rights Forum.
That once smooth, rich, decadent taste of fine dark chocolate melting slowly in your mouth may turn bitter for those unable to block the images of Africa’s lost children from their mind’s eye. The Mars and Hershey companies didn’t decline comment so much as they avoided it, says Bhavnani. Unlike Grenada Chocolates, theirs are not child labor-free. But Bhavnani does not belabor the point.
Her movie glides easily between the lives of the various characters – both the living and the dead – who are part of Grenada Chocolates creation and success. Green speaks eloquently and passionately of Browne, all in the past tense, creating in viewers a longing to know what happens to him. Bhavnani resists the temptation to rush to the end, letting the yearning linger.
Instead, she turns to the effervescent Nelice, raising her six kids, growing cocoa, constructing her own home and her church, coping with life after the death of her husband – all while singing, smiling and optimistically hoping she will one day be invited to join the co-op that pays $2 a pound while the only other buyer in Grenada, the government, pays only $1.30.
But Green struggles financially. He can’t take on a new grower right now. He tinkers with old machinery, willing it to continue to work. His home consists of a cot in the tool room of the factory, a small, brightly painted building nestled against a hill, of all places, across from the road from the Prime Minister’s house in Hermitage, Grenada.
“I don’t have a family. I don’t have much of a social life. It’s my whole life at this point, pretty much,” says Green of his business.
Enter politics. Bhavnani could easily have avoided the subject, but instead she hits it head on. “The film is a little bit harsh against Fairtrade,” she acknowledges. But the truth is Fairtrade is only one step in the right direction. In the case of Grenada Chocolates, if the company paid the required fees, they would be unable to pay their growers a fair wage for their product.
Bhavnani is willing to point out the short side of the Fairtrade movement, even if it hurts her chances of finding a distributor. The whole truth has to be told, she says.
“I think it as obscene that not all trade is fair – that unfair trade is allowed to be the rule and fair trade becomes the exception,” says Vandana Shiva, Ph.D., a physicist and environmental activist, who believes Fairtrade status should only be given to autonomous producers.
Green’s dedication to fair production, both professionally and personally, unfolds slowly to viewers. He never mentions the personal sacrifices he makes to create a model company and to stand behind the people of Grenada. Images of a man – who acknowledges he doesn’t smile much – beaming as he picks up a co-worker’s young child from school and drives him home underscores what might have been. The children in town call Green “Smilo” – the local name for hot chocolate (which everyone drinks in lieu of coffee, says Green). The children don’t understand the irony as they giggle for the camera.
Whether a viewer’s chocolate interest rises in terms of taste, ethical values, promoting the use of appropriate technology or encouraging organic farming, Nothing Like Chocolate is an appetizing way to spend 63 minutes. The only real catch is that by the end, child labor notwithstanding, the urge to partake of the sweet is more or less overwhelming.
Not to fear, Maya Schoop-Rutten, the Swiss-born proprietor of the Chocolate Maya specialty shop on lower State Street carries a variety of Grenada Chocolate bars. And if you don’t find them there, “the big exciting thing coming up next is my sailboat journey from Grenada to NYC and England, to deliver chocolate bars sustainably to the markets using only wind power, on an old-fashioned Brigantine, square rigged sailboat with no engine,” says Green.
There is no turning a good idea back.