As Indonesian director Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s film Filosofi Kopi opens in tandem with the eponymous café’s doors, its intent of reestablishing the lost art of coffee drinking becomes clear. Based on Dewi Lestari’s short story and dubbed as the first “user-generated film” in Indonesia, Filosofi Kopi takes us behind the scenes of the country’s thriving coffee culture.
Each frame of the opening scene reveals the unifying coffee ritual: close-ups of steam rising from fresh brews; baristas charming patrons through their ardent explanations of coffee-making technique; customers inhaling the aroma emanating from their warm cups. The low, buzzing hums of the coffee grinder and cappuccino machine mingle with the murmurs of intimate conversation. The café’s cozy visuals beckon us to order a drink and stay a while.
The next scene brings cold contrast: an empty café, drab and grey; the landlord lambasting café owner Jody for being months behind on rent. Even though Ben, Jody’s best friend and business partner, is an excellent barista, the two find themselves trying to save Filosofi Kopi from closing shop. They quickly learn that creating a successful coffee shop’s the communal atmosphere (with the perfect cup of coffee at its center) doesn’t come without sacrifice.
When a mysterious businessman challenges them to concoct the perfect house blend in exchange for enough money to save their café, Jody and Ben jump at the opportunity—but not without quarrel. They grow increasingly isolated as they set about saving their café, and questions of coffee ethics arise as they decide to adapt the cherished blend of a local coffee farmer in order to win the bet.
The question remains: What does it take to make the perfect cup of coffee? A visit to a coffee plantation takes coffee-making back to its roots—and also back to the duo’s own roots. As they retreat into the past, the layers of coffee’s luxury are slowly removed. Unbeknownst to the consumer, a painful history oftentimes exists behind the stylish façade of cafés like Filosofi Kopi and their sumptuous cups of joe.
The brilliance of Filosofi Kopi lays in intersecting its protagonists’ journey in coffee-making with the material beginning of coffee itself. Growing and harvesting coffee beans requires a communal effort, but also entails a process wrought with political complexity, from coffee’s origins in Indonesia’s colonial history, the exploitation of village farmers, contestation over land rights, to increasing pressure for third world countries like Indonesia to export coffee in order to fuel the global corporate market demands.
Sasongko’s lens acknowledges these problems in brief, telling moments – most notably when we delve into the personal pasts of the leading duo, whose lives have intersected with the political forces that disconnected them from their families. Jody and Ben’s transformations rely on them coming to terms with what coffee has cost them in their own traumatic histories.
As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that the art behind coffee—from farming the beans to brewing and drinking—is a profoundly communal, spiritual process. Jody and Ben must relearn the collective effort it takes for coffee to materialize. They must recognize the labor of coffee-makers who came before them, for what is owed to their coffee ancestors can never be materially repaid. Only when their appreciation comes unprompted, from the heart, can the unifying effect of the coffee ritual be revived.