What Price Free Speech?

We are so thrilled with the local news coverage of the Austin Fair Trade Film Festival.  The Austin Chronicle ran this story Thursday and our thanks to the Chronicle and to Richard Whittaker for helping spread the word – and the facts.

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The Politics of Food Production

Austin’s first Fair Trade Film Festival sparks controversy

BY RICHARD WHITTAKER

If you’ve ever seen the Fair Trade logo on your coffee and wondered what it meant, then Austin’s first ever Fair Trade Film Festival might clear up what’s in your cup.

So what is Fair Trade? Employers and exporters in developing nations who agree to abide by certain good employment and trade practices – such as allowing democratic collectives and opposing child labor – can put the Fair Trade logo on their products. That means ethical shoppers in developed nations know which products to buy to support the right firms and keep their money away from the bad ones. Festival organizer Sharon Matheny explained, “[Fair Trade] recognizes that the majority of goods that Americans buy and consume are produced outside the United States, and the people who produce it are usually not paid a living wage.” Even though the first Fair Trade supply chains were established in the 1940s and more than $4 billion worth of certified goods are sold every year, Matheny said, “most Americans are not aware of this type of economic practice.” That’s why she’s organizing this film festival – to get the word out.

While she hopes this will be an annual event, it’s starting small, with three films, panel discussions, artisan demonstrations, and a Fair Trade market. In selecting the lineup, Matheny said, “We wanted to show films that deal with the major topics in Fair Trade.” Buyer Be Fair: The Promise of Product Certification tracks the path of coffee from Mexican growers to European consumers, while Maquilapolis (City of Factories) uses footage shot by female factory workers along the Mexican border. Matheny said: “It concentrates on the sweatshops that manufacture most American electronics that do not come from Asia. They’re the source of considerable economic instability right in our own backyard.”

There was a shadow hanging over the third film: The Price of Sugar, the Paul Newman-narrated, South by Southwest 2007 Emerging Visions audience award-winning documentary about sugar harvesters in the Dominican Republic. “Most people don’t realize that the majority of sugarcane in the United States comes from the plantations dealt with in this film,” said Matheny. It contains serious allegations about how one family of plantation owners, the Vicinis, treats its laborers. On April 8, Washington, D.C.-based lobbyists Patton Boggs sent letters to the festival organizers claiming that the film is “rife with errors.” It noted that they are suing the filmmakers on the Vicinis’ behalf for defamation and claimed its distributors, New Yorker Films, suspended DVD production “to avoid being sued and possible ‘repeater’ liability.” (In fact, the producers told Matheny that the distributors went bust, and the film is available for group screenings viawww.thepriceofsugar.com.)

Initially, the festival organizers feared they might end up in court if they screened the doc (see “Naked City,” News, April 23). In the last week, Patton Boggs clarified that it just wanted one of its people to take part in the panel discussion and include the Vicinis’ side of things. Matheny said, “We’ll absolutely extend them the courtesy.”

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KVUE News also interviewed Sharon Methany, a Ten Thousand Villages Board Member who is on the film festival’s planning committee.  Our thanks to Sharon, and  to all those working so hard to make this festival a reality.

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