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A Spike in Supply-Chain Muckraking

"Blood Diamond" (with Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio) is among the wave of movies that address the often-hidden social and human toll of economic issues. The trend includes 2004's "Maria Full of Grace" (with Catalina Sandino Moreno, left) and the current documentary "Black Gold," below, about Ethiopia's coffee-export industry. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Well known to economists, retailers and the guys in systems, supply chain refers to, as one observer recently put it, "how stuff gets from there to here." For labor, human rights and environmental activists, it's shorthand for how things like sweaters, coffee, diamonds and anything Made in China starts out in the factory or on the farm, and makes its way to the consumer. It's a journey that can often involve ecological degradation, low wages and inhuman working conditions along the way, social costs that are hidden within low prices and folksy PR campaigns.

The supply chain has been enjoying fame, if not exactly fortune, lately, as the theme du jour for fiction and nonfiction filmmakers alike. Two SC movies arrived on local screens just this weekend: "Blood Diamond," a fictional thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou set in the diamond mines and war-torn territories of Sierra Leone, and "Black Gold," Mark and Nick Francis's documentary about the journey of coffee from the impoverished farms of Ethiopia to the tall no-foam cap with a double shot in your local Starbucks.

"Blood Diamond" and "Black Gold" are just the latest in a recent glut of movies dealing with the supply chain. Consider, in no particular order: "Fast Food Nation," Richard Linklater's feature film about the labor, environmental and public health issues of the common McBurger; "Syriana," last year's multi-layered critique of the oil industry; and "The Constant Gardener," a John Le Carre thriller set in the shadows of the multinational pharmaceutical industry.

Documentaries have been taking on the subject in a big way, from "Super Size Me," about one man's descent into McDonald's-induced thrombosis, and "Darwin's Nightmare," about a community in Tanzania whose dependence on one product -- the Nile perch -- has engendered an unholy matrix of environmental destruction, AIDS and illegal arms trade, to the delightful "Mondovino," about changes in the world wine market, and Robert Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price," an investigation of where all that stuff on Aisle 3 comes from.

Muckraking, it seems, is all the rage. But does it pay? Of all the supply chain movies, "Syriana" was the closest thing to a hit, raking in $84 million. Unless you count "Traffic," Steven Soderbergh's sprawling portrait of the international drug trade, which made a whopping $205 million. ("Fast Food Nation," which opened three weeks ago, has grossed around $800,000 so far.) Most have proved to be modest successes at the box office.

But these are films whose success isn't measured only in numbers. A few years ago, at a cocktail party in the well-heeled Baltimore suburb of Ruxton, a very refined guest was heard to say that after seeing "Maria Full of Grace" (about a young Central American woman who becomes a drug mule after losing her job in a flower factory), she would never again buy a rose wrapped in cellophane.

That's precisely the point, according to Edward Zwick, who produced and directed "Blood Diamond." In a recent telephone interview, Zwick said his criterion for success is based on consciousness, not box office clout. "The 19-year-old kids in the multiplex who don't know [anything] about Africa, if they take away a certain number of iconic images or ideas about issues, that will be success for this movie," he said.

But if box office is measured in dollars and cents, how do you count changed minds? Dan Viederman, executive director of Verite, a nonprofit that monitors global labor conditions, credits Greenwald's Wal-Mart documentary as part of a successful larger campaign to pressure the retailer to change its business practices. Wal-Mart has "undertaken some pretty significant policy changes on the environmental side," he says, "having to do with how they deal with energy use and carrying more organic stuff. They've also committed to only purchasing Marine Stewardship Council-certified fish."

Rodney North of Equal Exchange, a worker co-op for fair trade food and beverages, credits the supply chain films for raising public awareness on a more far-reaching and effective level than ad campaigns or news articles. "Our voice is drowned out by the corporations," he wrote in an e-mail. "So films like 'Black Gold' offer something we could never afford on our own." What's more, he added, the visual nature of cinema punches up the message. Regarding Ethiopian coffee growers, he said, "Even for people who have read or heard about these farmers and their situation, these images really drive home the point in a much more powerful way."

Of course, as is the case with "Black Gold" (and much of "Blood Diamond"), it helps when the movie is good, whether driven by a worthy issue or not. With luck, and with those growers and their invisible peers around the globe in mind, J.B. and company will keep making quality films that look at the supply side of life -- and even if the movies don't clean up at the box office, they might wake up audiences, corporate and consumer alike.

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