What Should I Put in My Coffee?
Coffee creamer turns out to be a deeply philosophical topic in this documentary, which explores big ideas about the ethics of dairy and its plant-based alternatives.
Follow filmmaker Jon Lanthier as he searches across the Pacific Northwestern US for the most morally responsible creamer, interviewing dairy farmers; baristas and coffee roasters; Oatly, the oat milk producer; animal welfare researchers; vegan activists, and many more.
Where other documentaries take sides and push agendas, "What Should I Put in My Coffee?" meditates on—and refuses to make up its mind about—one of the most pressing questions of our time: is animal agriculture ethical?
Runtime:1 hour 26 minutes 26 seconds
Completion Date:July 18, 2020
Production Budget:10,000 USD
Country of Origin:United States
Country of Filming:United States
Shooting Format:Blackmagic RAW (Digital)
Jon’s had a long career in communications and marketing, primarily for nonproﬁt organizations and government agencies. He’s passionate about education and early childhood programs, social services, and (of course) food system ethics. Although this is Jon’s ﬁrst feature-length ﬁlm project, his resume is full of video production projects for past employers, most of which he managed soup-to-nuts. Jon handled all aspects of the production for "What Should I Put in My Coﬀee?," including photography, sound design, editing, musical composition and performance, and etc.
Jon’s ﬁlm-related credentials also include hundreds of thoughtful movie reviews for outlets such as Slant Magazine, Box Oﬃce Magazine, and Documentary Magazine. Read more here: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/joseph-jon-lanthier/movies
Dozens of documentaries have been made about coffee: its history, ethics, production, how to make the perfect cup, etc, etc, etc. I wanted to make the world’s first documentary about coffee creamer. Why? Because I use it, almost every single day, multiple times a day, and I think that what we choose to put in our coffee says something about who we are.
Coffee creamer also comes to us via a multi-million dollar industry that overlaps with dairy farming, agriculture, and big tech—juggernauts of capitalism, some of which are driving the most pressing environmental concerns of our time. How can coffee drinkers make purchasing decisions that balance taste, mouthfeel, dietary restrictions, ethics, and more? With so much online content arguing for and against any and every conceivable opinion, how can any of us know who or what to trust when it comes to coffee creamer—or any consumable, for that matter?
To explore these issues I interviewed a broad range of individuals who intersect with coffee creamer in various ways—baristas, farmers, agricultural researchers, historians, and consumers of all backgrounds. I asked them about their habits and perspectives, and how those formed. I also allowed them to drift into whatever topics they wished to discuss. This yielded some astounding stories and insights that I’m proud to share with the world.
With that said, I hope this isn’t seen as your typical “socially conscious” documentary. I’ve permitted myself to creatively riff on the subject matter. I’ve also tried to embed my values into the making of the film. Here are a few considerations that have defined my approach:
--Doc, Essay, or Drama?--
While most of the film resembles a traditional documentary, scripted passages are also included for tone, and to dramatize information I discovered in research. Other narrated sections owe a significant debt to essay-films by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and John Berger, among others.
--It’s personal, not political--
While my point-of-view is transparently and unapologetically critical of capitalism and consumerism, I’ve tried to create an open-ended inquiry that can stand apart from many food documentaries that promote a specific agenda. (Think: Eating Animals or Food, Inc.) This isn’t an exposé intended to change consumer’s minds with irrefutable evidence. I’m more interested in examining how consumers make up their minds in the first place. So you won’t find too many data points or infographics about how dairy contributes to global warming in the film. You will, however, hear consumers, farmers, activists, and others explaining their beliefs and values, and sharing the experiences in early life that shaped their opinions.
--Ethics, not politics--
My film is not about factory farming, nor is it about humane labels. It is not about bogeyman ranchers or legislators that need to be dealt with so that the food we eat might become ever so slightly more compassionate than it was yesterday. My film is about the big, fat assumption that lies at the very core of animal agriculture: namely, that it is permissible to cause other sentient beings pain and discomfort because of the immense value we can yield from their bodies. Some ethicists even refer to domestication as a “contract” between humans and animals that gives us the right to eat them (and their products) in exchange for food, shelter, decency, etc. This contract has been argued over for millennia, and the conversation will likely continue until we reach the point where all animal products are lab-grown and lack central nervousness. I have tried to take the long view, in other words; I don’t want to inspire specific gestures of activism so much as to put people in conversation with a deep and questionable legacy.
I’m a white, heterosexual cis-male. One of the many sociopolitical advantages I enjoy is the ability to express thoughts and opinions freely with the expectation that others will listen. I wanted to try to balance my privileged perspective by emphasizing the voices of groups to which I do not belong. I interviewed more women than men, and I sought out as many opportunities as possible to speak to people of color. (There are very few films on health / wellness / environmental themes that feature African Americans, as a recent New York Times article points out.) My intention wasn’t to ask these individuals to speak for the greater populations to which they belong, of course; I only wanted to ensure that the chorus of voices in the film erred on the side of diversity.
Producing "What Should I Put in My Coffee?" has truly been a labor of love, curiosity, and obsession. It is a public record of my search for meaning within our tangled food system—and much like our food system, the finished product is far from perfect, with many questions left unresolved. I believe, however, that the conversation to which it contributes is critical and timely. I hope we never stop discussing, debating, and deliberating the merits and shortcomings of what we put in our coffee.