It’s tough to be both a foodie and a film buff anymore. Seems for every tasty morsel that touches one’s plate, there’s an accompanying documentary detailing the heartrending toll on human life and the planet itself required to bring it there.
A pair of films by director U. Roberto Romano playing in this year’s Philadelphia International Film Festival & Market do just that, ruining both veggies and dessert by focusing on child labor in the cultivation of crops in the U.S. and Africa. Romano’s work as a photographer who spent more than a decade documenting the subject in conjunction with a number of human-rights organizations has previously been collected in an exhibition titled “Faces of Freedom.” He brings the same eye to these two docs, which are beautifully shot depictions of horrendous situations.
The title of The Dark Side of Chocolate tells you pretty much all you need to know about its content. “Everyone loves chocolate,” its voiceover begins, in a tone that implies the soul-staining implications of that passion.
The film follows Danish journalist Miki Mistrati from the Wonka-esque delights of a chocolatiers convention to the pint-sized laborers on the cocoa plantations of Ivory Coast, who aren’t orange-skinned and definitely aren’t singing. The 46-minute film is straight-ahead investigative journalism, exploring the trail of child traffickers from Mali to Ivory Coast with help from locals and hidden cameras.
Romano and Mistrati let their images make their points. The claims of a leading cocoa magnate that child labor simply doesn’t exist in Ivory Coast cuts immediately to a hidden-camera shot of two machete-wielding kids, the elder of whom is maybe 12 years old. At a Mali bus station, where a well-traveled back road runs directly between the two countries, a group of kids runs off only to be chased down by smugglers on motorbikes, herding the frightened children like sheep. And then there’s the chilling face of a 12-year-old Malian girl, rescued from a trafficker, who looks more frightened at the prospect of returning home empty-handed than by whatever would have awaited her in the cocoa fields.
The children of The Harvest/La Cosecha (not to be confused with Gabriel DeLoach’s The Harvest, playing at the concurrent Philadelphia Independent Film Festival) know exactly what awaits them. The sons and daughters of migrant workers in the States, their lives have settled into a steady, grueling routine at very early ages. Rise early, do backbreaking work in 100-degree heat for 12 hours for weeks on end, then move on to another home in another state to do the same with another crop.
In The Harvest, Romano focuses on three of these kids, ages 12 to 16, who spend their summer vacations doing things that would send Dickens straight to his writing desk. The occasional intertitle flashes stark facts and statistics onto the screen, but unlike the direct journalistic approach of Chocolate, here the director aims dead-on for emotional impact. Despite the beauty of his images of ripe tomatoes and lush red strawberries, the sweat on the brows of three generations at a time is what draws the attention. Just as vital is Romano’s depiction of the families’ nomadic lives, where the constant uprooting, slovenly conditions and hunt for work in city after city is as stressful as the toil itself.
Both films screen Saturday at the African American Museum in Philadelphia as part of the 35th edition of the under-the-radar film festival. Unlike its cousins the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival (see schedule here), the fifth edition of which kicked off Wednesday, or the Philadelphia Film Festival, which celebrates its 21st year in October, the Philadelphia International Film Festival & Market consists of two slates: a competition, with a black-tie awards ceremony on Saturday night, and a marketplace for films seeking backers.
Other films on the marquee include Meherjaan, a Bangladeshi star-crossed romance set in 1971 during the country’s war of independence; The Wereth Eleven, a doc about African-American soldiers in a WWII tank battalion; Fallen, an Iranian silent film; Capoeira: Fly Away Beetle, a doc on the origins of the Brazilian martial arts/dance hybrid; and Revelation Blue, a TV pilot about a preacher-turned-police detective.
All films showing at African American Museum, $8-$60, 701 Arch St., 215-574-0380, philafilm.org.