FROM THE GROUND UP (Su Friedrich, 2007)

Graceful, witty and, shot in digital video, deceptively casual and relaxed, From the Ground Up is astute about the neo-neocolonialist depravity that is innocently called globalization. Su Friedrich, departing from her superlative autobiographical films and films about gender politics, has dedicated this freshly brewed documentary to the Fair Trade coffee movement. With herself (beginning with just a hand) visible in Guatemala, her film tracks the odyssey from beans being harvested to cups of coffee being sold on a New York City street, never losing sight of the people involved along the way. In a seemingly throwaway juxtaposition that perfectly illustrates the film’s wit, the inexpensive cup of coffee emanates from a stall right outside a Starbuck’s. Here is cinema that’s good to the very last drop.
     Friedrich herself is a charmingly low-key presence, for instance, when she chats with the cab driver who is helping with the translation of Spanish—itself a bit of wit since most of the harvesters, including children as young as six, are likely illiterate and are in any case silent throughout. However, we learn from Friedrich’s discussion with this soul whom she met when he gave her a ride in his taxi (this is a film entirely about work) that each of the bean pickers earns $3 a day—this, for impressively hard work. Notably, many faces, especially ones belonging to young children, express hostility and discomfort to the intrusion of Friedrich’s enigmatic video camera while they work. Each family must meet a daily quota of one hundred pounds. Encapsulating the weight of their labor is a tremendous shot showing, indoors, stacks of bulging sacks of coffee beans. The importer is in Charleston, South Carolina. Where the beans are processed is unclear, but it is not Guatemala.


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