No matter what age we are, everyone relish chocolates and candies but whenever we bite a chocolate bar or sip a cup of hot cocoa did we ever consider where it comes from? Chocolates make a person smile when they are sad, it can cheer up anyone at anytime and at any given situation, it is a token of love and symbol of friendship. But who knew that this sweet confectionary can also be bitter for many, and little did we know that chocolate has a dark side. ‘The Dark Side of Chocolate’ is a documentary that highlights the plight of African children in cocoa plantations. The film dives into the miseries of African children who are forced to be labors in the cocoa plantations. The Documentary shows it audience the bitter side of chocolates. Danish journalist Miki Mistrati takes us down the lanes with his international and under cover journey to investigate the allegations of child labour and trafficking in the cocoa plantations. The title itself hints at the documentary showing negative side of chocolate industries; of what hidden truths lay behind the production of a cocoa coated sugar bar and giving us a glimpse into a notorious world of cocoa plantations.
Child Labour- Linking it to the Issue of Human Rights
The broader theme of the documentary is the pressing issue of child labour in the cocoa plantations of Ivory Coast. The children between the age of 7 to 16 work for the plantation workers, who ruthlessly exploit the child force without paying a penny for their efforts and labour. A child is thrown into a myriad where escape is near to impossible; they unwillingly become part of the horrendous network and have no other option but to provide their service to their master, thus leaving them to suffer emotional and physical abuses. The documentary highlights the plight of the children who work for long hours under exploitative conditions, often beaten and abused. It is undisputable that the issue of child labour is a human rights problem. There basic rights and dignity, by the virtue of being a human is hampered. Although, the main document on human rights, Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), does not have a separate article mentioned on children, thus, even today a human rights understanding of child labor is not widespread. Yet there are prices to be paid—often steep prices—for human rights myopia or quiescence. However, it will be wrong to say that the issue cannot be addressed as a Human Rights problem; instead Human rights orientations to child labor are now found with the International Labour Organizations (ILO) paying great amount of attention to the problem.
Child Trafficking, Slavery and Domestic Violence
Children are commonly trafficked from one country to another; hence trafficking and slavery form the underlying themes to the main issue being addressed in the documentary. The children are tricked into the promise of being paid, who along with their parents fall into the trap. However, the reality remains altogether different and sad. They are made to work all day and tend to live in state of misery, falling in a myriad from where escape is impossible for those who succumb to the situation, whereas for those who dare tend to escape; for example the two boys that Mistrati and his crew found dared to escape. One instance in the film also highlights the issue of domestic violence; where Mistrati has tried to focus on the wounds of the girl who was rescued from the bus station in Mali. What is thought provoking is the fact that these inhumane activities are a result of a greater social problem of poverty that is prone in various African countries. Parents give consent to their child being taken away, with the hope that they will earn and shoulder the burden of responsibilities with them. An activity like Child trafficking is based on a vast nexus involving everyone from the families of the children to the, local people and the local authorities, hence not dreading and fearing the law and therefore the crime reaching its peak.
Another micro theme that I drew from the film was the heights of capitalism accelerating child labour practices. Mistrati has not failed to pinpoint the ‘ devil in the heaven’; clearly explaining how tons of cocoa is bought for only $1 a kilogram and on the final stage 1 kilo cocoa makes 40 chocolate bars, and one bar alone is sold for a massive price. Hence the chocolate manufactures earning the huge profit. Another instance is of the third largest cocoa suppliers ‘Saf- Cocoa’ who pay only a tiny bit of the amount to the cocoa planters, and in return does not pay the labours (mainly being children) because they wish to keep whatever little they get to themselves; and the vicious cycle continues with the cocoa suppliers and chocolate manufacturers being the major beneficiaries and the labours being the ones in the most disadvantaged situation. In this entire scenario it’s the children who work in these cocoa plantations that continue to suffer with no escape from this circle.
Unquestionably the film has been successful in pointing at the unethical ways of the industry, but ultimately fails to provide the basic information about trafficking, child labor, and ethical sourcing that its intended lay audience is likely to require. While a more comprehensive documentary could have examined migrant smuggling as a social problem, discuss relevant international laws and organizations, and outline civil society initiatives for ethical sourcing of cocoa, yet the film should be considered an important element of a more comprehensive toolkit for educating ethical chocolate lovers.
The documentary starts with Mistrati and his crew visiting a chocolate fair in Cologne, Germany. His satirical stare at the hoarding on the entrance, a white man posing happily with chocolates, makes him think of the bliss that a chocolate provides to the first world consumers, unaware of the darkness within the chocolate industries. Further, Mistrati question the producers of renowned chocolate brands of the malpractices in cocoa industries. While few were unaware of what goes inside the cocoa plantation stating that it is altogether a different industry, others were reluctant to talk about the problem and issue. CEO of ‘Barry Calleboat’ largest suppliers of cocoa from Ivory Coast had a casual approach to Mistrati’s question stating “I am unaware of the issue of trafficking and if it exists then it may be exceptional”. To investigate further Mistrati and his crew takes the audience to Mali and Ivory Coast; the sending and receiving countries of trafficked children, respectively. There he follows the smuggling route from native village, to border crossing and to cocoa plantation. The coverage is satisfyingly comprehensive, and the images captivating. We meet children at various stages of trafficking, interview mothers of missing children, interrogate conspirators, and follow the buses, taxis, and traffickers that make it all possible. Mistrati and his crew also visit various international and local offices of INTERPOL, the ILO, the Ivoirian president, cocoa suppliers, and chocolate manufacturers, where he questions officials’ awareness of and responses to trafficking and child labor. In the film’s final scene, Mistrati screens footage on a large surface outside of Nestlé’s headquarters. With a clear message: consumers should be outraged at the unethical sourcing of cocoa, and their activism should target the chocolate industry. This act is symbolic of taking a dig at large chocolate manufacturers and their casual approach to a much serious issue that needs their undivided attention.
In appreciating film, we can undoubtedly say that it is successful in avoiding two pitfalls common to documentaries on developing countries. First, it delivers compelling on-the-ground footage without engaging in ‘poverty porn.’ The film is tasteful in using images of Africa and Africans to tell a story and evoke interest in working for change. Second, Mistrati does not reduce actors to simple “heroes,” “villains,” and “victims,” but instead allows them to reflect the complexity he finds on the ground. For example, the General Secretary of the Malian bus drivers’ union could have easily been “the hero,” as he has “rescued” children for nearly a decade. However, a moving image of him weeping for the fate of these children is countered by a scene in which he vehemently censures a young girl for crossing the border to find work. He threatens, “Never come back!” and sends her back to a family that she says will be angry with her for not earning money. The audience cannot help but wonder: Will she be punished for returning home empty handed? Was she wrong to seek work? Was he right in his decision to intervene? How do we adjudicate between a family’s need for income and labor of a child? Throughout the film, the audience is pushed to grapple with the idea that complex social and economic issues overlap to create the problems of child labor and trafficking. These debates, however, are rightly the background noise to the main message: Children should be at school, not work. They should not be smuggled across borders, nor misinformed about the terms of their employment. Most obviously, they should not be held captive and unpaid for their labor.
Despite the successful story that the documentary has put forth, yet there are certain perils of the film. Firstly, it is a monotonous storytelling, doing a little to educate its audience on the main subjects that the film tends to highlight- ‘child labour’, ‘child trafficking’, and ‘slavery’. Inability in differentiating between these themes, failure in properly define them and placing it in a broader context of international laws, chocolate industry networks and advocacy organizations. The second shortcoming is a misleading account of which actors can, are able and also willing to bring change in the cocoa production in Africa. Specifically, the film underemphasizes the role of the state, overstates the efficacy of the private sector, and ignores civil society. However, it should be clear that labor rights and border security are the responsibilities of the state, and that the most effective way to regulate the cocoa industry would be for cocoa producing states to enforce efficient and strict laws. On that note everyone knows that states—particularly those in the stage of development, or on the brink of failure—is often unable to command the rule of law. However, if that is the case, then we can accept the ground argument of the film; that it is chocolate manufacturers, not states that should be held accountable for the conditions under which cocoa is produced. Another drawback that the film highlights is the link drawn between prevention of child trafficking and child labour could be possible with a simple and a non- abiding protocol signed among the CEO’s of top chocolate manufacturers, which stated ‘prohibition of child labour and child trafficking within the chocolate industry after 2008’. This seems a very reductionist stance towards a serious issue that cannot be eradicated merely with signing a protocol and hence it is misleading. An industry agreement cannot make illegal behavior “impossible,” and such protocols are often aspirational, serving more to placate critics than to change modes of production. These agreements offer no rewards for compliance, no consequences for deviance. The real engine of change—which is largely ignored in the film—is civil society, it is clearly known that for the last ten years, consumer activism has put a formidable amount of pressure on global companies to transform their practices by adopting voluntary social and environmental standards. Ethical supply chains are the result of civil society organizations developing voluntary ethical standards, and consumers creating demand for verified products. The film omits this critical piece of the story.
‘The Dark Side of Chocolate’ allows us to participate in an investigative adventure, and its message is clear: Consumers of conventionally sourced chocolate, your tasty treat is the product of child labor and trafficking. Although descriptions of these social issues and potential avenues for change are less clear, the film was likely intended to accompany additional educational materials. Indeed, several NGOs and campaigns include it in a broader toolkit.