When you drink your morning coffee, you probably don't think about where it came from or what went into getting it to you. But that might change if you see the eye-opening documentary "A Small Section of the World," about how a small group of women in the mountains of Costa Rica started a thriving coffee business, achieved financial independence and inspired others to do the same.
The film chronicles how the women of ASOMOBI (Asociación De Mujeres Organizadas De Biolley) took the initiative to support themselves and their families and are now empowering others to break cycle of poverty and brighten their futures. Director and co-producer Lesley Chilcott, (known for hear work on "Waiting for Superman" and "An Inconvenient Truth") explains how she brought their story to the screen. The film opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 5, in New York on Dec. 19 and will be available nationwide on Amazon Instant Video, Comcast's Xfinity TV, Google Play, iTunes, Sony PlayStation, Time Warner Cable, Vudu and Xbox on Dec. 16.
MNN: How did you hear about ASOMOBI? Why did you want to make a film about it and these women?
Lesley Chilcott: In a way, the story found me. Greenlight Media came to me with an idea of telling a story about the women of ASOMOBI. They were approached by Illy Caffe, which buys coffee from ASOMOBI, and they in turn heard about their incredible story from their agronomists who go out in the field. I am still fascinated that a company like Illy wanted to make a film about some of the coffee producers. And then when I heard what these women had accomplished, combined with the fact that my husband and I spend part of the year in Costa Rica on our small farm, I was in! I went on three separate trips in November and December of last year and May of this year. We also filmed in Trieste, Italy, and Los Angeles. A lot of travel for a small film.
Are you a coffee drinker? Did making this give you new appreciation of what goes into a cup?
I do not drink coffee! I think if I had, I probably would not have read all the history books at the beginning of this film. It gave me a unique perspective ... why do people get so crazy about their coffee? Historically, it's very interesting and has shaped the economies of many countries. In Costa Rica, most of the coffee comes from small, family run farms; it's a very democratic process. And in many parts of the world, growing good coffee can be a direct route out of poverty for many families, and for women in particular, if they have a say in the process. Around the world, women do 70 percent of the work in coffee, yet only 15 percent are in leadership positions or own the land. Coffee means so many things to so many people. It's a ritual for most; it's come to symbolize friends and family, sharing, and something you can count on.
What were your greatest challenges in making the film? Are you fluent in Spanish?
Mi español es muy, muy limitado!! Initially it was lack of information. There was a lot of confusion over how ASOMOBI was run, so my DP (director of photography), producer and my husband (who translated for us) and I hopped on a plane and went down on a research trip last November. We filmed the last of the coffee harvest and I met all the women and conducted on-the-ground research. Grace Mena came down to meet me, and Samanta [who plays a role in the film], by a stroke of luck, happened to be home visiting from college. That's when I learned she had chosen to do her college thesis on ASOMOBI and that her dream was to come back and work there. She was the living embodiment of what the women of ASOMOBI were trying to accomplish.
What did you want to convey going in? Did you change your approach at all as you filmed?
Yes, I think it always evolves with documentaries. When you run across something fascinating, you follow it. Initially I thought I would be making a film that showed how a group of women overcame difficult circumstances and created something better for the next generation. And I also wanted to show the coffee process in great detail, starting with the picking of the red cherries early in the morning, as we're so disconnected from our food and drink and all that goes into creating and producing it. So I did these things but as I learned more about everything these women have gone through, it evolved to also be a story about women's economic empowerment as well.
How has ASOMOBI inspired other women to start businesses?
Initially, the story of the first women's-run micro-mill spread through Costa Rica and people would make trips to ASOMOBI to see what they had accomplished. But now, through the IWCA (International Women's Coffee Alliance) and other people their story has spread all over. Women in Burundi and Kenya know their story and are inspired by it. And now hopefully even more people will know about them. For those who have seen it at special screenings or film festivals, the story seems to stick with people. Teachers and professors have approached me wanting to design a class lesson around it, and the coffee community has really embraced the film. I was invited to show it at the State Department and that was a really wonderful experience. Lots of great questions from that audience. Hopefully, it will inspire people to take on challenges that they didn’t think possible. And hopefully, it will help some people get more in touch with where their food comes from. You see in the film that the lodge at ASOMOBI burned down. They've only been able to rebuild part of it with insurance money, so I hope some kind souls see the film and go to their website and help them. There is a direct link from the film's website to the group's website.
Are you working on another film?
I am starting a documentary next month called, for now, "#girlsintech." I'm following groups of high school girls from various countries as they compete in an international competition where they have 12 weeks to create an app that solves a problem in their local community. Last year a team from Moldova won for creating an app that monitored the spread of hepatitis A in the local water supply. The process these girls go through is really transformative for them. They learn they can do things they didn't think possible, and they create some really wonderful apps while still in high school. For many, it's life-changing, so I think there will be some great stories there.
What messages do you hope audiences take away from "A Small Section of the World?"
The next time you have your cup of coffee, or tea, really think about how many hands it took to make that for you, and how many of those hands were women's. What do we do three to four times a day? We eat and drink. We can't continue to be so disconnected from what goes into our food and beverages. It's not healthy for us to not know things, and it's not healthy for the planet either. And of course the next time you come across a challenge, think about what these women were able to accomplish with so little and in the middle of nowhere. They built a coffee mill on top of a hill. I hope the women in this film inspire all of us to do more.
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