Home CPH:DOX '22 CPH:DOX interview: The Chocolate War by Miki Mistrati

CPH:DOX interview: The Chocolate War by Miki Mistrati

The Chocolate War by Miki Mistrati

Next time you buy a bar of chocolate, you may be startled to discover that probably only 6% of the money you’ve just paid will reach the cocoa growers. The 50 pence that you pay (if it’s not ‘fair trade’ chocolate) is an absurdly low figure. 

The big food companies like Nestlé and Cargill can keep prices down because they demand such preferential terms from their suppliers. How do the suppliers cope? The answer, as described in Miki Mistrati’s disturbing new documentary The Chocolate War (a world premiere in CPH:DOX’s F:act Award Section), is by using unpaid child labour.


This isn’t the first time that Mistrati has explored the dirty secrets of the chocolate industry. His previous films include The Dark Side Of Chocolate (2010) and Shady Chocolate (2012).


“It all started in 2007,” the Danish filmmaker remembers when he first bit into this particular subject matter. “I was in my local supermarket buying chocolate. I was just looking at some of the chocolate bars on the shelves.”


Only one of the bars, he noticed, had a ‘Fair Trade’ logo. Mistrati couldn’t help but wonder what that meant about the rest. He began to investigate. Precious little research had been done on the subject. “There was an old Panorama from, I think, 2000, a 30-minutes story, but nothing really was about child labour.”


Mistrati travelled to the Ivory Coast to explore the subject further and made his first documentaries on chocolate and exploitation. In a roundabout way, those early films led him to Terry Collingsworth, the celebrated US lawyer fighting the David and Goliath-style battle against the giant food companies. Collingsworth is the main protagonist in The Chocolate War.


Mistrati’s idea was for an observational documentary following the lawyer’s work. The approach would be very different from that in the earlier films, which were more journalistic. “It [the film] is not an investigation and I couldn’t lead it anywhere else than where he wanted to go.”


The director’s frustration with the actions of the major food companies is self-evident. “They could fix the problem quite easily,” he argues. These are multi-billion dollar companies. They continue to deny that they benefit from child labour – but the evidence suggests otherwise. They may have wriggled their way out of the court case featured in the film after US Supreme Court took their side but they’re still at risk. If consumers start a boycott of their products, they will end up with their reputations very badly stained – and their bottom lines will suffer as a result.


“Hopefully, this film will start that movement where people say ‘enough is enough.’ [But] the problem with all this is that the payment the farmer gets is so extremely low.”


The farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast have to invest in pesticides and labour. Profits are minuscule. Under intense financial pressure, they “buy” and enslave kids and get them to do the work for nothing. By recent estimates, 1.5 million children are working illegally in the chocolate business.


In the documentary, the filmmakers go undercover in the Ivory Coast, visiting a government-run “Child Rehabilitation Centre” set up to help youngsters rescued from trafficking and illegal child labour. They discover, though, that no children are there. It seems very likely that the school has been set up just for show, to deflect attention away from the exploitation.


Mistrati says his biggest wish is for his film to be picked up by one of the giant streaming platforms. (Sales are handled by DR Sales). If that happens, the message will be out. The food companies will be so badly shamed on social media that they will simply have to change their policies. 


In the UK, Cadbury is a household name, a confectionery company that used to be renowned for its philanthropic work and enlightened treatment of its workers. However, since 2010, the company has been owned by US multinational giant, Mondelez. “I would like to hear anyone from Cadbury say our chocolate is not produced by child labour,” Mistrati observes. 


The Danish director has been based in the UK since 2015. He is CEO, founder and co-owner of Perfect Storm Productions. A multi-award winning director and executive producer in his own right, he has worked on well over 80 documentaries for broadcasters while also finding time to write several novels and non-fiction books.


Perfect Storm makes “quality factual, entertainment & documentary programming” for British and international broadcasters. “But I am more a creative filmmaker than a businessman,” Mistrati says. He adds, half tongue in cheek, that he is really best known as “a professional troublemaker.” It has been his long-term quest to change the way chocolate is produced and consumed – and to ensure that children aren’t exploited or put into slavery. That’s why representatives of the food companies are so frightened by him.


During CPH:DOX, Mistrati will take part in a panel (on 25 March) with Danish chocolate producer Mikkel Friis-Holm about how to produce chocolate in an ethical way.


“It can be done!” The director insists that humane and non-exploitative chocolate production is possible. Consumers may have to swallow a price rise – but if they know the facts, he believes this will be accepted. 


“The price for a chocolate bar is unnaturally low. It doesn’t make any sense. A chocolate bar should cost around 4 or 5 quid, not 50p. It’s unrealistic…unless you don’t pay the farmer and the farmer’s employees.” 


The director’s response to those who say they will no longer be able to afford their favourite treat is that they can choose “not to eat chocolate every day…[eat] less but buy the sustainable one instead…that’s the way we need to look at things.”