Coffee Talk with Director Lesley Chilcott

<em>A Small Section of the World</em> tells the story of women in Costa Rica who changed the coffee industry

Big ideas often come from small kernels, or, in the case of A Small Section of the World, beans.

The documentary from director and producer Lesley Chilcott tells the story of a group of women in Costa Rica who started La Asociacion de Mujeres Organizadas de Biolley (ASOMOBI), creating their country’s first female-run coffee micro-mill. Their tireless work and tenacity in the face of hardship have had a wide-ranging impact on a global industry and affected lives all over the world.

With the film now available on Video On Demand (iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Xbox, Playstation, Google Play, and VHX), we spoke to Chilcott, whose credits also include Waiting for “Superman” and An Inconvenient Truth, about her film, the coffee industry, and the importance of sustainability and sourcing.

How did you come across this story in Costa Rica and what compelled you to make it into a documentary film?
The story found me. Greenlight Media and Marketing here in Los Angeles heard about the women of ASOMOBI and their micro-mill from Illycaffe in Italy, and they reached out to me as someone who could tell their story. My husband and I have a small farm in Costa Rica, so I knew the region, but our farm is very far from the remotely located ASOMOBI. Once I learned it was in Costa Rica and about successful women entrepreneurs, I was in.

Did you have a favorite character or characters? What did you learn from them?
That’s tough to say, so many women in coffee have accomplished many things against the odds. Hortencia, Laura, Ariana, Giselle, Jeimy, and now Samanta, they are just really special. But as Alanis [Morissette] said when co-writing the song for the film, “Everyone wants an Auntie Laura!” She was referring to one of the original founders of ASOMOBI. Laura has one of the most compelling faces I’ve ever seen, and combine that with what she and others actually did: Build a coffee micro-mill on top of a hill and figure out how to mill coffee, it’s just amazing.

Sustainability and sourcing are food-supply issues that only seem to be getting more attention. What are your thoughts on the importance of this? Did your views on this change when you made this film?
I’m an “every dollar is a vote” kind of person.  So I make choices to buy products with less or recycled packaging, with little or no toxins, and from companies that consider sustainability a top priority. I’m a vegetarian because climate change is such a huge problem. We are such an instant-access society, and all of us need to think more about where our products have traveled from and this is especially important with food.
While making the film, I learned to think even more about the farmer behind what I eat and drink, and how their lives might be affected by a choice I make. Getting to know the farmer is not just a good thing to do, it’s also a lot of fun.

Are you a big coffee drinker? How has creating this film affected your relationship with coffee?
I do not drink coffee! I’ve always been fascinated by how particular people are about their coffee although I suppose I do the same thing with tea. I realized that coffee for most people isn’t simply something they drink twice a day, it’s a ritual. For some, it’s something they can rely on. For others, it brings comfort. But for a lot of people, it’s a symbol of friends and family and good conversation.
After studying coffee for a year and getting to talk to agronomists and seeing the whole process from how it’s grown, processed, and consumed, I have a new appreciation for all the work that goes into making one cup of coffee. And by the way, 70 percent of this work is performed by women.

We live in a world where Blue Bottle can raise more than $25 million in venture capital from investors like a co-founder of Twitter and a co-founder of Instagram. Do you see that being part of or conflicting with the world inhabited by the women in Costa Rica you featured?
This is an excellent question. Coffee is becoming more and more like wine, and many argue it has even more complexity. Where there are opportunities to buy directly from the farmer, it’s a great benefit for them because it results in a higher price for them as well as better and more sustainable farming practices. We are and should be reading on our packaging where the coffee was made, the family behind it, and what kind of farming practices they use.
Coffee is a risky business. There are droughts, frosts, disease, overproduction one year, and a shortage another, all made worse by global warming, and most of the farmers need to have another source of income as well to survive. So a higher price for well-made coffee is well-deserved for them.
The women in the film are micro-mill producers. So for them, people wanting to learn more about specialty coffee producers is a plus. In Costa Rica, coffee is considered a democratic process because most of the farms are pretty small, and lots of families all over Costa Rica participate, and they have for many generations. When people appreciate specialty coffee. it benefits them.

How did the women respond to seeing themselves in the film?
They were very surprised. We rented a bus, and they traveled the five hours from Biolley where the mill is to the capital in San Jose, Costa Rica, and saw it in a theater. There were reporters there, and I think they couldn’t believe there was a whole film about them and that so many people were interested in it. It was very emotional. The audience gave them a standing ovation, which was a pretty special moment.

What are you working on next?
Next month I am starting a documentary called #girlsintech about groups of high-school girls from around the world who compete in a contest called Technovation. They have three months to write and create an app that solves a problem in their local community. Last year a team from Moldova won, and no one had ever competed from Moldova before. Their app tracked the spread of Hepatitis A in the local water supply. The apps the girls come up with are incredible, and they are transformed in the process. Not only do they realize they can code, but that they actually have some control over changing things they don’t like in the world.  I’m really looking forward to it.