From the Ground Up
Microcinema // Unrated // $24.95 // June 24, 2008
Review by Chris Neilson | posted May 31, 2008
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A viewer of From the Ground Up might be surprised to learn that this documentary following coffee from plant to cup was made by experimental American filmmaker Su Friedrich who is best known for her avant-garde films about sexual identity and politics. As director, cinematographer, and image and sound editor, Friedrich displays a nuanced approach to her subject. Where a careless viewer might come away thinking From the Ground Up is viewpoint-free observational documentary, a careful viewer will be rewarded by the subtlety of Friedrich's style: only the slightest of pauses on the face of a child agricultural laborer or on a coffee plantation owner's exquisite hand-tooled leather saddle, or the marriage of images of crude shanties with the airiest of jingles, hint that Friedrich is appalled with what she's seeing and thinks we should be too.

From the Ground Up begins on a hillside on a Guatemalan coffee plantation. Men, women, and children work side by side picking coffee beans and filling large sacks from early morning to early evening. Children as young as six, not officially on the payroll, help their parents fulfill their 100 pound daily quota for which the picker receives $3 a day.

Back from the fields, the foreman shows Friedrich how the coffee is processed to separate the bean from the pulp. She then follows the coffee from plantation to warehouse where the coffee is assessed for quality and then sold into the international market. But, before picking up the story upon its entry into an American port, Friedrich stops off at an urban Guatemalan grocery store where her camera scans coffee section. Ironically, the Guatemalan grocer's coffee selection appears identical to that of a mid-market American grocer's, Folgers Instant and Ground predominate, followed by Nestlé, Maxwell House, Sanka and a host of other brands likely all exported from Guatemala, roasted and packed elsewhere, and then imported back into Guatemala for sale.

Once stateside, Friedrich catches up with the coffee at the offices of Balzac Bros., a white-shoe, third-generation coffee importing firm in Charleston, South Carolina. The firm's owners and sales staff are urbane businessmen steeped in the jargon of their trade. Friedrich's camera records a tasting provided to a couple of new clients, young owners of a coffee house and micro-roaster, who settle on a stock and take delivery all the same day.

Friedrich heads next to her home town, New York City, to a large commercial roaster, Vassilaros & Sons, that supplies the city's ubiquitous push carts. From roaster, to push cart, to Manhattan office worker Friedrich follows the coffee completing the grower to consumer cycle for coffee.

Though only 54 minutes, From the Ground Up never feels rushed, but nor does the journey from hillside to cup feel overly long. Friedrich allows the story to unfold at a conversational pace, but relies on music to caffeinate her work. The song used throughout this work is an especially catchy ditty from 1940 entitled Java Jive that's still rolling around in my head. Here's a bit of it:

I love coffee, I love tea
I love the java jive and it loves me
Coffee and tea and the jivin' and me
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!

I love java, sweet and hot
Whoops! Mr. Moto, I'm a coffee pot
Shoot me the pot and I'll pour me a shot
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!

Oh, slip me a slug from the wonderful mug
And I cut a rug till I'm snug in a jug
A slice of onion and a raw one, draw one.
Waiter, waiter, percolator!

The Video:
From the Ground Up was filmed on DV, and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The image quality is good with warm but steady coloration for the material filmed in Guatemala and South Carolina and cooler coloration for the material filmed in New York.

The Audio:
Friedrich's use of the camera mic to record sound allows for fluid, low budget filmmaking, but also leaves the audio sounding hollow or distant at times, though always understandable. On the other hand, Java Jive sounds alive and vital playing across the front channels.

There are optional Spanish subtitles, but the English subtitles are forced and only play as translation of Spanish dialogue.

The Extras:
The only extra is a pdf booklet accessible by computer DVD-ROM drive. The booklet includes a data-supported call to action to buy Fair Trade Certified coffee.

Final Thoughts:
Coffee is the second most valuable global commodity after oil. The industry employees 25 million farmers and workers. Americans consume 3.15 billion pounds of coffee a year, yet many of us have only a vague understanding of how coffee gets from the exotic locale identified on the label to us First-World consumers. From the Ground Up is a valuable corrective to fill that information gap.

Viewers interested in learning more about how Fair Trade Certified coffee can make a meaningful difference in the lives of small coffee farmers should also see Black Gold from Mark Francis and Nick Francis which is highly recommended.

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