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  • Travis Lee Ratcliff

THE HANDS WE CANNOT SEE

These notes come from my directing logs about the process of making various films. After wrapping a significant project I often like to write down my memories and experiences to try to process what I learned and capture what I want to remember from the project.

It’s three in the morning on our first day of filming. We haven’t slept more than two or three hours. In the distance we can hear the busy sounds of trucks moving in rapid succession. It’s eerily busy for this hour of the morning.


This region of Nicaragua is devoted to coffee production.


In the darkness, the working day begins as harvesters walk on foot from their homes to the various farms spread out across the region.


After a cup of the richest coffee I’ve ever tasted, we too pile into our vehicles and set out for the farm. It is a two hour drive and we want to arrive with the sun.


We have set out to make a short documentary exploring the lives of coffee workers. Our client, Guadalupe Roastery, has told us about their mission. From the beginning they made it clear that they believe it is the responsibility of businesses to combat our tendency to marginalize workers whose labor creates the products we enjoy every day.


A miracle of the global economy has been that we have access to such a wide variety of products and comforts. A consequence of these arrangements has been the division of labor that, at its best, offers opportunities around the world for communities to elevate themselves through trade. The economy, however, is always what we make it.


Our failure to value the labor being done on our behalf, our lack of demands on the businesses who trade in this labor, ha


s conditioned us to accept the descent of workers into invisibility.


We now fail to ask how the things we enjoy come to be available to us. As a result, an alienation emerges between the producer and the consumer. This alienation allows for injustice, inequity, and abuse to become all too common.


Our tolerance for these things is rarely a conscious transgression, but rather an inevitable consequence of the amorality of darkness. The inability to see causes our inability to think, to choose, to feel.


Setting out on our journey the fundamental goal became to create visibility. Using our craft of cinema, we wanted to bring out the human details of the day to day lives of individuals who are ordinarily obscured from view. To us, this meant building a film around the lives of the harvesters in the fields, the workers at the drying beds, the farmers planting next year’s crops, the children whose parents raise them while working on the farm, and everyone in-between.

In a strange way, we find ourselves in daily communion with these workers. Each day we drink their coffee is an opportunity to be conscious about the work that has been done. Where the trade is fair and ethical it can be a thing to celebrate and honor. Recognition of that act of community became one of the central missions of the film.


Rolyn and Lorena, our guides, generously allowed us to film their farm, where the conditions of the workers was much more equitable than much of the rest of the region.


In the darkness, the truck wound up an increasingly precarious mountain road. As the sun broke over the horizon we finally saw where we were and the transcendent beauty of the landscape. Mountains touched morning mist air and enormous trees reached up to the sky.

Coffee is grown at an incredibly steep grade directly off the side of mountains. A labyrinth of coffee trees, standing at about eye height, peppered the landscape in every direction.


When workers arrive at the farm they are greeted by a meal to start their day. Blanca, a young single mother, wakes up well before the workers to begin cooking and preparing the morning meal. She lights up the wood stove and hand-grinds corn for fresh tortillas. She makes a batch of coffee in the skillet.

The morning is cool and sunrise radiates through the misty air. I remember tasting a banana right from a bunch while we unpacked and prepared the camera. It tasted like ice cream, rich with vivid sweetness.


It was important for us to follow as much of the coffee making process as we could. Witnessing each stage of the process, we were repeatedly surprised how much of the entire operation can be performed by a handful of people.


Once the coffee cherries are picked, they’re brought back to the center of the farm where they’re run through a an industrial de-pulping machine. It’s a simple gas powered device that is primarily driven by the workers who attend to the cherries as they’re being de-pulped. Then the de-pulped cherries are pushed through a series of trenches where so that they can be washed. The washed beans are then sacked by hand, loaded into the pick-up truck of our farmer, Rolyn, and driven to a large drying facility.


The drying facility is just a large series of fields where the wet beans can be dried by the heat of the sun. They’re overturned by shovel and plow so that they can be fully dried. Once dried, they’re ready for roasting.


Wages often paid to these workers are still quite low. A typical wage for harvesters is seven dollars a day in the high season and five dollars a day in the low season.

These wages are often better than the other opportunities available in these communities, but when we consider how much is spent on coffee by consumers and how little returns to the workers the disparity remains difficult to justify.


As filmmakers, each of these stages presented unique challenges to us, but the single question we continually returned to was the question of alienation. Films we had observed in preparing this project often fell into some common traps.


It is easy for a distance to emerge between the filmmakers and the people they’re telling a story around. When storytellers lose sight of the humanity and become focused instead on the commodity of coffee the result are films that fail to feel rooted in the people who are at the core of the work.


Our strategy was to stay focused on the everyday details of the work. The small human qualities that reveal the wholeness of the people we were surrounded by. At every stage we kept trying to find ways to orient the film not in objects but in people.

I became fascinated with the landscape of the human hand. The stories that are contained within each person’s body. And the spaces where joy exists alongside long hours and difficult work. Turning our camera on a landscape that is just as beautiful as it is difficult and unforgiving.


It is a strange consequence of making films that we are often faced with surprises and lessons we never expected to find. We try to ground our films in important themes and questions, but inevitably the journey of making the film reveals concealed truths previously unseen to us.


My guess has always been that this is simply a result of intensely focusing on a single idea or theme, causing the echo of that idea to appear in everything around you. Nevertheless, what this feels like during production is that the film is revealing itself to you in every part of the journey.


I remember the hours we drove from Managua to Matagalpa. As we passed through small towns, we were surprised by the scenes of life that unfolded outside our car window. Every home had open doors. And the public square seemed to be all around us. Each second of the drive became marked by intimate glimpses into the drama and comedy of the lives we witnessed.


We do not often consider the degree to which privacy is an economic luxury. Our society assumes it to be a basic requirement, forgetting the significant consequences it has on those who adopt it in totality. After all, to have perfect privacy is to be totally alone.

In the suburban cities I had known growing up, there was a closed anonymity that stretched in every direction.


You might be justified in believing the houses were empty of residents, the neighborhoods populated only by a quiet stillness.


Across the countryside of Nicaragua we saw the messiness and beauty of life play out in overwhelming detail.


It had the inevitable consequence of reminding you the degree to which we are all entangled in each-other’s lives.


The desire to build walls, close doors, to hide our grief or our joy, is an effort at illusion-making that ultimately only prevents us from realizing the depths of our capacity for empathy.


In the west we’ve shut ourselves off from our neighbors and willed ourselves into blindness to their needs.


It is this same impulse that poses the riddle at the core of our global economy. How can we build a more just world when we cannot see the needs of others?

In a time when there is so much rumination on the idea of wall-making we must think intensely about the choices we make that similarly block from view other nations and peoples whose lives are woven into the fabric of our own.


In the months that followed our time in Nicaragua we watched with surprise and horror as the country descended into a political crisis.


We cannot help but look back on the images we made and see something quiet different from when we were present filming in the country.


Retrospectively, we see images of a country enjoying a calm before the storm. We see hardworking resilient people who are determined to build a better future for themselves and their children.


We look at the friends we made and see them as a part of our own lives, not separated from us by language or borders but a part of our own community. x.TLR

director's notes

 
lee
 

travis lee ratcliff