Coffee & Tea Films
James Hayes-Bohanan , Ph.D.
Bridgewater State University Geography
Vanderbilt University Institute for Coffee Studies

UPDATED June 2, 2013

The coffee and tea index page is the gateway to all of my coffee and tea endeavors. This page focuses on films that have a story to tell about coffee or tea. Some of these are works of fiction in which coffee or tea -- perhaps in passing or perhaps as a major character. Others are documentaries in which film makers have sought to tell a story about coffee, either the bean itself or the people who care for it and nurture it toward the cup.

A geograher and his cafezinho
I would love to speak about coffee or tea to your school or civic organization!

Coffee Documentaries

I have found a growing number of audio and video documentaries that are useful in my coffee outreach and teaching, because they help students and other audiences to understand the specific places in which the coffee story unfolds.

Birdsong and Coffee makes clear the connections between the consumption of coffee and the health of tropical ecosystems, especially those that support the habitat of migratory birds.

It is a beautiful film (viewable entirely online) that brings the viewer into some of the most vital and vibrant coffee farms in Central America. I recommend the blog Coffee & Conservation for those who want to learn about this important and fascinating subject in more detail.

The second half of the film describes student travel in coffeelands and various alternative coffee markets, including some organized by students.
Black Gold is a feature-length documentary film that exposes the extreme disconnect between designer lattes and the abject conditions of farmers in Ethiopia who make them possible.It also explores the effort to ;narrow that gap through fair trade. It has a tendency to manipulate the audience somewhat, by cutting quickly from the comfortable luxury of first-world coffee to the harsh realities of some of the most impoverished coffeelands, with dramatic music to heighten the contrast.

Those contrasts are real, however, so coffee consumers do have a responsibility to know why the ethics of coffee trade are matters of life and death. For this reason, I show Black Gold more than any other coffee film. I also like a segment near the end that describes the imbalance inherent in the operation of transnational negotiations such as those that govern the World Trade Organization (WTO). I sometimes show this part of the film in non-coffee courses because it shows just how distorted "free" markets actually are, and how those distortions are maintained.

One Cup is a 30-minute film that can be viewed online, about Timor-Leste (East Timor), one of the world's newest countries. Few countries have suffered more than East Tmor, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or displaced with almost no media attention.

The History Channel has produced a good introduction to coffee entitled Modern Marvels: Coffee.

Guatemala: The Human Price of Coffee is an excellent introduction to the coffee crisis as it has emerged amid the beautiful lands, rich heritage, and tragic history of highland Central America.

Coffee Country
Guatemala/Mexico: Coffee Country is a PBS Frontline documentary about fair trade as a partial solution to the problems farmers face. It is part of a remarkable series about social entrepreneurs throughout the world who are finding ways to empower communities.

The film is a brief but remarkably thorough overview of the problems facing small farmers and how farmers can work together to enter the fair-trade market. The 20-minute film can be viewed online, or as part of the DVD set (Maxwell Library at BSC has several copies).

The film web site includes many extra resources, including a simple but instructive game about the relative earnings of coffee growers, transporters, and processors (see link to the game at right).

Coffee Dollar

Coffee and Tea in Feature Films and Television

Coffee is the second-most traded commodity after oil and tea is the second-most consumed beverage after water. Because the two beverages are integrated into many cultures throughout the world, it is not surprising that they sometimes become important story elements in cinema and television. Here, in no particular order, are some works in which coffee, tea, coffee shops, or tea shops play some role. By the way, I pay a lot of attention to films. I discuss quite a few of them on A Few Good Films.

The Girl in the Café has an obvious connection to coffee, in that it
begins with a chance encounter in a café. As I have written on my environmental geography blog, though, it has an even deeper connection to coffee, and the film's final act greatly resembles the final act of Black Gold, a documentary described above. These very differnt films portray the meetings that establish the parameters of the world financial systems in similarly unflattering light.

M*A*S*H: The U.S. military has done much to advance the cause of bad coffee (read about this in Mark Pendergrast's Uncommon Grounds). When I worked for the Wornick Company -- one of the world's largest purveyors of combat and humanitarian rations -- we put 100,000 packets of nasty, instant coffee into rations every day. No series has done more to celebrate G.I. endurance of bad coffee than M*A*S*H, a series about army doctors set in the Korean War (1950-1952) but really more about the Vietnam War (ca. 1960 to 1975). In my spare time some day, I would love to create a montage of all the allusions to terrible Army coffee. Perhaps the most famous is from "The Nurses" in Season Five, in which Major Houlihan remarks, "Did you ever once ever offer me a lousy cup of coffee?!" Over the course of 11 seasons, the coffee references probably add up to the equivalent of at least an episode or two. Readers who notice particularly good scenes about coffee in M*A*S*H episode are invited to describe mention the scene (and the season and episode) on my M*A*S*H coffee blog post.

Spitfire Grill: My interest in the geography of coffee began with the farmers, but it eventually spread to the corner coffee shop. Cafés not only connect customers to farmers half a world away; they can also connect members of a community to each other. This is one of the things I ask my students to notice when they create reviews of coffee shops for my Secret Life of Coffee course. In some cases, my students and I have noticed, coffee shops have a particularly close-knit and loyal following. I cannot think of any film that captures this dynamic better than Spitfire Grill. We had watched this a number of years ago, and we watched it again in March 2010 as part of Pam's Celebrating the States blogging project. In fact, it was after watching this for the Maine entry that I decided to create this film page. The film is a classic story of redemption, in which the protagonist must overcome the skepticism of a community in general -- and the closedness of its main café. Watch the film to learn why, near the end of the film, I openly wept about a woman taking a job in a coffee shop.

Five Easy Pieces: Jack just wants his toast! The movie has little to do with coffee, except that its most memorable scene takes place in a coffee shop. More than any other, this is the scene that made Jack Nicholson the actor one loves to hate.

Darjeeling Limited: Because Darjeeling is one of India's three most important tea-growing regions (along with Assam and Nigrili), I was hoping that this film would help me to learn something about tea cultivation in India. The film is quirky and entertaining, but Darjeeling serves mainly as a backdrop and foil for this movie of fraternal strife among the three sons of an enigmatic and reclusive American woman (Angelica Huston) who lives in a Catholic convent high in the mountains of Darjeeling. Tea was served to the brothers in several scenes, they sometimes added whiskey, but otherwise seemed hardly to notice the cameo appearances of the beverage.

Flame Trees of Thika
: In the summer of 2010, I will be exploring both coffee and tea farms (gardens) in the vicinity of Thika, just northeast of Nairobi, Kenya. I chose to visit Kenya for some research because it is an important producer of both coffee and tea. I chose Thika because of my tremendous good fortune in meeting a student who grew up on a coffee plantation there, and whose family is willing to provide some orientation and guidance. In preparing for the trip, I found a 1981 television miniseries whose title refers to the brilliant flowers on a tree in the Thika area. The series is based on a memoir of a British woman who came to Thika as a child, as her parents sought to establish a coffee plantation there. I have enjoyed the first four episodes -- which center on wild animals, clearing the land, and establishing relationships with local people and other colonials. I look forward to receiving the second disk, whose episodes will -- I assume -- include both the coffee and the flame trees of the title.

Out of Africa: This is a big movie with beautiful scenery, a doomed love affair between Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and a dramatic coffee tragedy.

Coffee Date: A rather hip coffee shop is the setting for this film about homophobia. Reviews on this one are quite mixed. Some viewers -- myself included -- see it as deeply mocking anti-gay stereotypes; a substantial number of viewers just see the film as perpetuating them.

Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan
Professor of Geography and Coffee Maven
Bridgewater State College
Bridgewater, Massachusetts USA / EEUU / EUA