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Slavery behind pleasure

The most innocent things can hide a brutal reality.


Washing powder, plastic jugs, panties, shirts, nails and chocolate. We all recognize these things – and they immediately have little in common other than the fact that many objects come into daily contact, in one form or another. But do we really know where these things come from? Do you know where the shirt you wear is made and where the cotton in it is picked? Have you checked if the people who sewed your shirt or involved in other stages of production lived under acceptable working conditions? That they got their wages and were not abused?

Probably you don't know anything about this or do anything about it. Or, if you actually have the knowledge, you are one of the very, very few consumers who investigate the origin of things. And even though you know that the shirt is from Bangladesh, maybe even what factory it was made at, even the most ihuga contemporary archaeologist won't be able to dig up who actually sewed the shirt – and how he or she does it at work.

Slave labor and sweets. For example, think about the last time you ate chocolate. Do you even remember the incident? When did it happen, where were you, how much did you pay? How much did you enjoy the taste and how long did it take to eat the candy? Many people will not be able to place and consume such consumption: it goes quickly into the body and just out of the head again. But if you actually remember it, we might ask: Did you think if someone else's suffering could hide behind your own brief pleasure? If not, you should see The Chocolate Case.

In 2002, Dutch journalists Teun van de Keuken, filmmaker Maurice Dekkers and TV producer and reporter Roland Duong came across a small note in a newspaper, where they could read that children were used as slaves in chocolate production. They marveled that this was given so little space, and decided to investigate the matter further. Why was this not widely debated across the board? It couldn't be right?

But they didn't have to dig much to find out that it was all true – and that it was far more comprehensive than the notice had suggested.

Accountability. But it happens more than that. Teun van de Keuken wants to do something about the outrage and decides to contact human rights lawyer Michiel Pestman. Together, they plan to report van de Keuken for complicity in child labor. Because, as the lawyer explains, it is true that if you know that children are used as slaves in the production of a commodity, you will bear some of the responsibility if you still enjoy the candy.

The situation is most interesting: Not only does an everyday sweetener turn out to be the result of slavery and abuse, but it is also a small piece in the systemic suppression of hundreds of children – pretending to enjoy, an innocent taste experience. When responsibility is laid on van de Keuken, precedent can be created so that others, in principle, can be punished if he does. And if that doesn't happen, chocolate eating will at least be accompanied by the knowledge that child slaves have contributed to the sweet taste. The only problem is that one of the slaves must be able to testify about what has happened – without a witness there will be no trial.

What he finds is shocking, because not only are the children slaves, but they are constantly at risk of being killed if they refuse to comply.

The Archive of Suffering. So van de Keuken goes to Africa and seeks out those who have actually worked for western chocolate interests and sweetmeats. What he finds is shocking, because not only are they slaves, but they are constantly at risk of being killed if they refuse to comply. Protecting one of the others will "disappear into the night," creating a climate that opposes any kind of alliance and solidarity within the oppressed.

Big brands like Nestlé buy their chocolate in African countries that use children in slave labor. IN The Chocolate Case we are introduced to some of the stories of slaves: The film acts as an archive for their suffering. One moment's pleasure is linked to a cruel world populated by suffering children, who may end up dead: One by one, they stand in front of the camera and give this invisible part of the candy production a face that you won't forget.

They accuse you of not knowing – and because you haven't tried to find out who they are. But now you know.

Empathetic experiment. The film is a peculiar experiment in empathy and solidarity, because even if one person does not want to change the world through such an attempt to take responsibility, visibility will serve as an example for the attention of others. When we watch the movie, we not only want to think about who's behind the chocolate we eat, but maybe give a thought to the background stories of other types of goods as well. Of course, the amount of recognition that arises will vary from person to person, but the type of thought room created with The Chocolate Case, imposes a responsibility on all of us to investigate what we are involved in, even through the purchase of the most trivial things.

How it goes with van de Keuken and the more conscientious chocolate type, I will not reveal here, but it is an impressive journey of solidarity we witness.

What we can do. The problem with many of the things we buy and consume is that they are experienced as history-less objects, as if they came from nowhere. We know that is not the case, but act as if it is, because we rarely (if ever) make an effort to investigate more. Thus, we contribute to the oppression that often hides behind the innocent surface. My point – and the film's point – is that we surround ourselves with goods and huge quantities all the time, every single day, about which we know nothing, apart from the task they fulfill for us in everyday life. Although we do not know the kinds of crimes that are hidden in the prehistory of things, and may not even know, an interest in where things come from will make us more conscious consumers. Not just because we get to participate in the various components of the production process, but because we gain insight into the global cycle of work and goods, and how it can be repressive and inhumane.

The most important thing this film can teach us, therefore, is to do similar research yourself: When you shop, ask where the-and-that item is made. Ask where it comes from. Ask if it is certain that it was not produced under reprehensible conditions. If it is uncertain, choose something else.

We can all do something in our everyday lives – and if we start small, a lot is done.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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