Writer | Director | Producer | Editor




The Hands We Cannot See

Every day we take for granted the little luxuries that our global economy offers us.  We drink our coffee.  We start our day.  And hidden from view is the enormity of human effort, labor, and heart that has gone in to providing us that luxury. 

This separation, separation from the labors and efforts of people just like us, prevents us from thinking about the choices we make as consumers.  It prevents us from thinking critically about important parts of how our choices affect other people around the planet.  And most of all it makes it impossible to honor and respect the people who work every day to make those luxuries available to us.

In our short documentary: "The Hands We Cannot See" we are trying to lift the curtain.

We're trying to make visible the labor and work that goes into a simple product.

In November of 2017, we traveled to Nicaragua.  We followed coffee through every stage of production.  Our goal was simple: be a witness to the humanity that is a part of this process.  Bring that humanity to our audience through cinema's ability to connect us directly to the emotional lives of the people on screen.  We focused on the little human details that go into every step of the process.

If you're like me you'll be shocked at how little automation, and how much real human effort, is going into the process.

While we set out to make a film about labor and coffee, a few months after filming we were surprised to witness Nicaragua descend into its current political crisis. 

Looking back now on the film it is hard not to see a picture of calm before the coming storm, a portrait of the moments of peace in a country that now must fight to reclaim rule of law. 

This press kit and all media materials featured here below are free for use on any outlet or publication featuring the film or sharing it with their audience.

For questions or inquiries regarding the film please write to Travis Lee Ratcliff at: travratc@gmail.com

Travis Lee Ratcliff: Twitter / Instagram / Vimeo
Brody Carmichael: Twitter / Instagram / Vimeo

Thank you for your time and consideration of our project.


Short Synopsis

A portrait of the hidden humanity that exists in every stage of growing and harvesting coffee.

Medium Synopsis

Coffee is the second most traded commodity on earth.  For most of us, it is a daily ritual.  Yet so often we do not think about the humanity engaged in bringing us this luxury we take for granted.  In "The Hands We Cannot See" we've tried to honor and elevate the lives of workers by focusing on the little human details of their work in the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua as we follow a bean on its journey to the cup.

About the Filmmakers

"The Hands We Cannot See" was directed and produced by Travis Lee Ratcliff.
Editor: Travis Lee Ratcliff /// Colorist & Cinematographer: John Carmichael IV
Creative Agency: ANIMAL GARDEN


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Travis Lee Ratcliff is an Austin based director, producer, and editor.  He graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a Bachelors and Film and Television directing.  His work has been featured by NOWNESS, No Film School, Criterion, Film School Rejects, Texas Architect Magazine, and received multiple Vimeo Staff Picks.  His passion is for considering the ways in which independent filmmakers can empower themselves and reinvent their cinema with greater equality and economically sustainability.


John Carmichael IV is an Austin based cinematographer.  His work has been featured by Texas Architect Magazine and been presented in galleries and film festivals across the United States.

Technical Notes

The film was shot on the Varicam LT system.  Using the innovative chipset of the Varicam LT, portions of the film were shot at the native 5000 ISO of the camera, allowing the production to film in low light environments and view parts of the coffee harvesting process that would normally be impossible to film due to low light.

The capacity of the Varicam system to represent skin tone and color proved to be one of the real thrills of the project.  Where other cameras in the Varicam's class might struggle with representing skin tone and color, the Varicam manages to present extremely pleasing and accurate colors that make the vivid tropical environment of the Matagalpa region really shine.  In the color-grade a choice was made to lean into the saturated Central American pallet and really elevate the range of color we experienced on location.

Angenieux zoom lenses were used to balance the flexibility of filming in a series of unpredictable environments while still aiming to achieve visual fidelity to the stunning visuals of the locations.


You are welcome to re-publish the following interview in part or in whole or reference these comments in any article or publication that features or promotes "The Hands We Cannot See."

Interview with director Travis Lee Ratcliff

What is “The Hands We Cannot See” about?

A cup of coffee, like so many things we enjoy, is a miracle of the global economy.  And while that miracle is something to celebrate, one consequence of this global economy is a crisis of visibility. 

As consumers we live disconnected from the efforts of those who work on our behalf.  Layers of businesses often separate us from the work that is being done. 

As a result it becomes impossible to see the humanity that goes into the products we consume and take for granted. 

The mission of this film was to strip away those layers of invisibility and reveal the human energy that goes into every part of harvesting this object we so enjoy. 

In a world where we were more connected to the labor that is being done we might be more conscious consumers.  We might make choices that directly benefit farmers and laborers.  The price we pay for the things we consume might have a human quality to it and therefore an ethical dimension.  But I think most of all, we would obtain the facility to recognize and honor the work that is done.  And that is important in and of itself. 

While no film can successfully change a whole economy it remains worth while to endeavor for something smaller: a chance to see into the lives of others. 

All we can offer is a peak behind the curtain, but sometimes the things we see remain inside of us.  They live with us.  And they come to define the way we see the world.  That, I think, is the hope of most films.  That images may in fact matter, carry meaning, and help us in some way to grow.  

Our hope is to offer that peak around the curtain and perhaps change the way you see your cup of coffee. 

How did "The Hands We Cannot See" come about?

My work as a commercial and documentary filmmaker sometimes allows me the chance to connect with a client whose mission is genuinely special.  About a year ago Guadalupe Roastery approached me about their mission and their belief in the importance of re-connecting the labor of farmer's and consumers.  They commissioned a series of commercials and documentaries about their farmers in order to support that mission. 

From that footage and our experiences in Nicaragua myself and my team felt we could create a standalone short documentary portrait that explores what we experienced along the way and give primacy to the workers whose images moved us deeply. 

What influenced your approach to filming this project?

I spent a lot of time with my team researching what other documentaries and commercials had done in exploring the coffee industry.

A constant feeling we had in watching the existing works was that there often was an approach on the part of the filmmakers that ended up feeling anthropological in its exploration of the subject.

In short, there was an alienating quality that often seemed to creep into the images.  A sense of distance between the work being done and the filmmakers.

I would say our key goal became finding a visual strategy for eliminating that distance and allowing us a much more candid and emotionally connected portrait of the lives of workers in the coffee industry.

It wasn't until we were present filming that I really felt we found the appropriate visual language to drive the film.

The key became focusing on the human details of the work being done.  Trying to film the human hand like it is itself a landscape.  Making an effort to capture not just the activity but the atmosphere of the farm.  Reviewing the footage I thought a lot about Bresson.  About his fascination with the human hand.  And the way that our hands tell a vivid story about the lives we've lived.

Associated with that challenge was also a fairly practical question of determining how to physically navigate the coffee farm as a landscape.

Coffee is grown at an incredibly steep grade on the side of the mountain.  When you have a large camera and zoom lens it becomes quiet a challenge to navigate the landscape.  It also doesn't photograph quiet like you would expect when you see other images of coffee fields. 

It became a very frustrating challenge for the first part of shooting on the farm. 

Eventually we found the right combination of lensing and framing, and the right relationship between the subjects and the environments, but it was surprising just how difficult the environment was photographically. 

Perhaps, part of the difficulty was the overwhelming beauty of the place.  It was one of those environments that challenged your eyes with how beautiful it was.  Mountains reaching up into the mist, great old trees growing off the side of mountains.  And I remember too how strange the light was.  There was a diffused quality to everything.  It was like every hour was magic hour in that damp jungle mist. 

As a result wide shots always failed to capture the scale of the place.  Too often, we found ourselves retreating back into a more human scale, and hopefully deeper into the emotional space of the workers we filmed.

What do you want an audience member to take away from this film?

I genuinely hope that those who haven't asked the question of how coffee is grown, who is doing the growing, and what those lives look like will be challenged to remember these images when they drink their coffee. 

Visibility is the first step towards equality. 

How so?

One consequence of invisibility is that it cultivates an incapacity to even imagine equality. 
Where we create visibility, we take a step towards equality. 

How did the political crisis in Nicaragua effect the film?

Editing the film, we watched with horror as the country we had fallen in love with became consumed by political turmoil.  We thought constantly of our friends, who now live with far greater concern for their safety and with impaired freedom of mobility. 

We were not present during the crisis, but as a result we look back now on the footage and see a very different set of images.  We see a country enjoying a calm before the storm.  We see a people who are incredibly hard working, resilient, and hungry to build a future for themselves and their polity.  And we see a dream of what peace can look like again.

Our hope is to return to Nicaragua and work on telling the stories of the communities and people effected by these months of crisis. 

You are welcome to re-publish the following article in part or in whole or make editorial adjustments to this article for your own publication that features or promotes "The Hands We Cannot See."

Article 1 - Summary with quotes from the filmmaker.

Possible title: "Short documentary follows lives of coffee workers in Nicaragua"

Too often we fail to stop and think about the human work that goes into the little things we take for granted.

We drink our coffee. We start our day. But hidden from our view is the enormity of human effort, labor, and heart that has gone in to providing us that luxury.

In the new short documentary “The Hands We Cannot See” by Texas based filmmaker Travis Lee Ratcliff, the curtain is briefly lifted.

The film follows the lives of coffee workers in Nicaragua harvesting and preparing coffee beans for roasting.

Primacy is given to the humanity of these workers as the film tries to ground itself in the quiet details of work and the daily experiences at every stage of the coffee production process.

The filmmakers follow the story of a coffee bean as it is grown, picked, de-pulped, washed, dried and finally roasted.  Where the film differentiates itself from other similar stories however is the emphasis on people at every stage of that process.

Describing the mission of the film, Ratcliff says “I genuinely hope that those who haven't asked the question of how coffee is grown, who is doing the growing, and what those lives look like will be challenged to remember these images when they drink their coffee.”

Prior to setting out to make the film Ratcliff viewed other coffee focused documentaries to learn from their choices. 

“There was often an alienating quality that seemed to creep into the images.  A sense of distance between the work being done and the filmmakers.  Our key goal became finding a visual strategy for eliminating that distance and allowing us a much more candid and emotionally connected portrait of the lives of workers in the coffee industry.”

In the months that passed after filming the documentary Nicaragua fell into its current political crisis.

“We look back now on the footage and see a very different set of images.  We see a country enjoying a calm before the storm.  We see a people who are incredibly hard working, resilient, and hungry to build a future for themselves and their society.  And we see a dream of what peace can look like again.” says Ratcliff.

The film premiered online and is available to watch now. (Vimeo Link)

You are welcome to re-publish the following article in part or in whole or make editorial adjustments to this article for your own publication that features or promotes "The Hands We Cannot See."

Article 2: First Person Perspective on Making The Film

“The Hands We Cannot See” is a newly released short documentary following the lives of coffee workers in Nicaragua.  Travis Lee Ratcliff, the film’s director talks about the journey of making the film in the twilight days before Nicaragua’s political crisis.

It’s three in the morning on our first day of filming.  We haven’t slept more than two or three hours.  In the distance we can hear the busy sounds of trucks moving in rapid succession.  It’s eerily busy for this hour of the morning.

This region of Nicaragua is devoted to coffee production. 

In the darkness, the working day begins as harvesters walk on foot from their homes to the various farms spread out across the region.

After a cup of the richest coffee I’ve ever tasted, we too pile into our vehicles and set out for the farm.  It is a two hour drive and we want to arrive with the sun.

We have set out to make a short documentary exploring the lives of coffee workers.  Our client, Guadalupe Roastery, has told us about their mission.  From the beginning they made it clear that they believe it is the responsibility of businesses to combat our tendency to marginalize workers whose labor creates the products we enjoy every day.

A miracle of the global economy has been that we have access to such a wide variety of products and comforts.  A consequence of these arrangements has been the division of labor that, at its best, offers opportunities around the world for communities to elevate themselves through trade.  The economy, however, is always what we make it. 

Our failure to value the labor being done on our behalf, our lack of demands on the businesses who trade in this labor, has conditioned us to accept the descent of workers into invisibility.  

We now fail to ask how the things we enjoy come to be available to us.  As a result, an alienation emerges between the producer and the consumer.  This alienation allows for injustice, inequity, and abuse to become all too common.  

Our tolerance for these things is rarely a conscious transgression, but rather an inevitable consequence of the amorality of darkness.  The inability to see causes our inability to think, to choose, to feel. 

Setting out on our journey the fundamental goal became to create visibility.  Using our craft of cinema, we wanted to bring out the human details of the day to day lives of individuals who are ordinarily obscured from view.  To us, this meant building a film around the lives of the harvesters in the fields, the workers at the drying beds, the farmers planting next year’s crops, the children whose parents raise them while working on the farm, and everyone in-between.

In a strange way, we find ourselves in daily communion with these workers.  Each day we drink their coffee is an opportunity to be conscious about the work that has been done.  Where the trade is fair and ethical it can be a thing to celebrate and honor.  Recognition of that act of community became one of the central missions of the film.

Rolyn and Lorena, our guides, generously allowed us to film their farm, where the conditions of the workers was much more equitable than much of the rest of the region.

In the darkness, the truck wound up an increasingly precarious mountain road.  As the sun broke over the horizon we finally saw where we were and the transcendent beauty of the landscape.    Mountains touched morning mist air and enormous trees reached up to the sky.  

Coffee is grown at an incredibly steep grade directly off the side of mountains.  A labyrinth of coffee trees, standing at about eye height, peppered the landscape in every direction.

When workers arrive at the farm they are greeted by a meal to start their day.  Blanca, a young single mother, wakes up well before the workers to begin cooking and preparing the morning meal.  She lights up the wood stove and hand-grinds corn for fresh tortillas.  She makes a batch of coffee in the skillet.

The morning is cool and sunrise radiates through the misty air.  I remember tasting a banana right from a bunch while we unpacked and prepared the camera.  It tasted like ice cream, rich with vivid sweetness.

It was important for us to follow as much of the coffee making process as we could. Witnessing each stage of the process, we were repeatedly surprised how much of the entire operation can be performed by a handful of people.  

Once the coffee cherries are picked, they’re brought back to the center of the farm where they’re run through a an industrial de-pulping machine.  It’s a simple gas powered device that is primarily driven by the workers who attend to the cherries as they’re being de-pulped.  Then the de-pulped cherries are pushed through a series of trenches where so that they can be washed.  The washed beans are then sacked by hand, loaded into the pick-up truck of our farmer, Rolyn, and driven to a large drying facility.  

The drying facility is just a large series of fields where the wet beans can be dried by the heat of the sun.  They’re overturned by shovel and plow so that they can be fully dried.  Once dried, they’re ready for roasting.

Wages often paid to these workers are still quite low.  A typical wage for harvesters is seven dollars a day in the high season and five dollars a day in the low season.  

These wages are often better than the other opportunities available in these communities, but when we consider how much is spent on coffee by consumers and how little returns to the workers the disparity remains difficult to justify.

As filmmakers, each of these stages presented unique challenges to us, but the single question we continually returned to was the question of alienation.  Films we had observed in preparing this project often fell into some common traps.  

It is easy for a distance to emerge between the filmmakers and the people they’re telling a story around.  When storytellers lose sight of the humanity and become focused instead on the commodity of coffee the result are films that fail to feel rooted in the people who are at the core of the work.

Our strategy was to stay focused on the everyday details of the work.  The small human qualities that reveal the wholeness of the people we were surrounded by.  At every stage we kept trying to find ways to orient the film not in objects but in people.

I became fascinated with the landscape of the human hand.  The stories that are contained within each person’s body.  And the spaces where joy exists alongside long hours and difficult work.  Turning our camera on a landscape that is just as beautiful as it is difficult and unforgiving. 

It is a strange consequence of making films that we are often faced with surprises and lessons we never expected to find.  We try to ground our films in important themes and questions, but inevitably the journey of making the film reveals concealed truths previously unseen to us.  

My guess has always been that this is simply a result of intensely focusing on a single idea or theme, causing the echo of that idea to appear in everything around you.  Nevertheless, what this feels like during production is that the film is revealing itself to you in every part of the journey.

I remember the hours we drove from Managua to Matagalpa.  As we passed through small towns, we were surprised by the scenes of life that unfolded outside our car window.  Every home had open doors.  And the public square seemed to be all around us. Each second of the drive became marked by intimate glimpses into the drama and comedy of the lives we witnessed.

We do not often consider the degree to which privacy is an economic luxury.  Our society assumes it to be a basic requirement, forgetting the significant consequences it has on those who adopt it in totality.  After all, to have perfect privacy is to be totally alone.

In the suburban cities I had known growing up, there was a closed anonymity that stretched in every direction.  

You might be justified in believing the houses were empty of residents, the neighborhoods populated only by a quiet stillness.

Across the countryside of Nicaragua we saw the messiness and beauty of life play out in overwhelming detail.

It had the inevitable consequence of reminding you the degree to which we are all entangled in each-other’s lives. 

The desire to build walls, close doors, to hide our grief or our joy, is an effort at illusion-making that ultimately only prevents us from realizing the depths of our capacity for empathy.  

In the west we’ve shut ourselves off from our neighbors and willed ourselves into blindness to their needs.

It is this same impulse that poses the riddle at the core of our global economy.  How can we build a more just world when we cannot see the needs of others?

In a time when there is so much rumination on the idea of wall-making we must think intensely about the choices we make that similarly block from view other nations and peoples whose lives are woven into the fabric of our own.

In the months that followed our time in Nicaragua we watched with surprise and horror as the country descended into a political crisis.

We cannot help but look back on the images we made and see something quiet different from when we were present filming in the country.

Retrospectively, we see images of a country enjoying a calm before the storm.  We see hardworking resilient people who are determined to build a better future for themselves and their children.

We look at the friends we made and see them as a part of our own lives, not separated from us by language or borders but a part of our own community.

Image Gallery - Stills from The Hands We Cannot See

These are available for use in content or articles that promotes "The Hands We Cannot See"

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