‘Caffeinated’: Film Review
A globetrotting doc on the origins and evolution of coffee as both beverage and cultural signifier.
Many folks approach a cup of coffee without thinking about much more than getting adequately caffeinated. But for a growing number of enthusiasts, coffee consumption represents a cultural and culinary ritual that’s becoming increasingly sophisticated. Directors Hanh Nguyen and Vishal Solanki are clearly in the latter group and as first-time documentary feature filmmakers, their enthusiasm sometimes exceeds their expertise, but the film will likely find numerous similarly enamored coffee partisans via online platforms and VOD.
Beginning with a profile on the natural history of the coffee plant, the film traces its origins to East Africa and the eventual expansion of cultivation to India, Central and South America, Asia and other highland tropical regions. International trade gradually developed between producers and European countries, before eventually reaching the U.S. as well, beginning in the Colonial period. During the 20th century, coffee imports and processing started shifting from major food-production companies to smaller, independent roasters in the "specialty coffee" market.
These specialty companies include familiar names like Starbucks; Berkeley, CA-based Peet’s Coffee and Tea; and Italian firm Illy. Most import beans directly, roasting the coffee in their own facilities and distributing products throughout their retail networks. Some companies focus on sourcing coffee grown by small producers and cooperatives, often establishing direct "fair trade" relationships that help growers better adjust to the unpredictability of the global commodity market.
Specialty coffee has made significant inroads with consumers in the US, while coffee and cafe culture have evolved as well. As ubiquitous baristas prepare dozens of cappuccinos, lattes and espressos daily, often decorating them with signature swirls of creamy toppings, Americans have developed a renewed love affair with their favorite hot beverage. Coffee is now regarded by many as a culinary experience, celebrated at tasting and barista competitions and praised for direct connections forged with growers and small exporters.
Coffee remains a commodity crop, however, and the specter of economic exploitation still hovers over the trade, despite focused efforts to level the playing field between producers and importers. Ecological impacts of coffee cultivation, including deforestation and pesticide use, can be substantial, but the film also neglects to consider these issues.
Instead, we get interviews with grateful coffee producers from Nicaragua and Guatemala, enthusiastic importers at major specialty coffee companies (one Italian rep implies that Starbucks revitalized coffee culture by popularizing espresso in the U.S.), hipster baristas and dedicated customers, including actor Danny Glover, who offers the rather unremarkable observation that "coffee gives me a chance to start my day off in the right way."
Diehard consumers may find that all these insider details on the coffee trade measurably add do the enjoyment of their favorite beverage, but for those primarily interested in a tasty cup of liquid caffeine to start or prolong their day, the film’s frequent over-enthusing may seem like a bit of overkill.
Production companies: Evoke Mediaworks, Running Reel Films
Directors: Hanh Nguyen, Vishal Solanki
Producers: Hanh Nguyen, Vishal Solanki
Executive Producers: Vinay Gandhi, Hanh Nguyen, Vishal Solanki, Romit Patel
Director of photography: Vishal Solanki
Music: Derek Baird
Editors: Hanh Nguyen, Christopher Roth
No rating, 80 minutes