Before seeing Perfume War, I was already familiar with Barb Stegemann and the 7 Virtues line of fragrances. I rooted for Stegemann during her appearance on Dragon’s Den, and I’ve been aggressively spritzed with at least 3 out of 7 Virtues at The Bay. I was interested to learn more about Barb’s journey since Dragon’s Den, and about the Afghan people with whom she partnered. But Perfume War left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable and a bit frustrated, as what you promise isn’t quite what you deliver.
Let’s just address the white saviour elephant in the room now and get it over with. I was really hoping the film would avoid falling into this particular trap, as Stegemann, in shorter interviews and media clips, has always touted her business as being all about partnerships. I have heard her speak so compellingly about the Afghan farmers from whom she buys her oils that I expected the film to use the opportunity to expand on their stories. Disappointingly, we don’t hear from a single one of them directly.
I appreciate that there are obvious difficulties and risks involved with filming and conducting interviews in places like rural Afghanistan; however, Stegemann speaking not only about these people but for them is problematic. Even when the focus shifts to her work with an NGO in Rwanda, her local ‘partners’ are interviewed and we see them speaking, but Stegemann’s voiceover drowns them out. It isn’t until almost two-thirds through the film that a ‘partner’ is heard speaking for herself, and the optics of this are awkward as hell.
Inevitably, the stories of these partnerships are re-framed around Stegemann’s involvement. The story of Abdullah, an Afghan farmer, is incredibly moving, but quickly becomes the story of how Barb Stegemann made poor Abdullah’s dreams come true.
Throughout the film, there are brief touches upon a few genuinely interesting themes and subjects, like the role of women in postwar economic recovery, or the nexus between commerce and social justice. But these seem shoehorned in as some kind of cursory effort to provide the ideological impetus to Stegemann’s business endeavours, and deserve to be fleshed out more than they are. Stegemann’s involvement with research into using scent therapy to treat PTSD in soldiers is also interesting – too much so to be crammed like an afterthought somewhere in the last 20 minutes of the film.
The thing is, Stegemann’s passion and commitment to her business, as well as to the people with whom she works, is obvious, but the film is so poorly packaged that her insights, and those of her friends and colleagues, comes across as slightly tone deaf.
I began to think Perfume War suffered from a lack of focus, but then I realized that I was the one missing the point. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the film wasn’t working for me, and then it hit me: Perfume War is merely an over-long corporate video, aimed solely at selling a product and a brand. I should have caught on sooner; the interviewees theatrically sniffing bottles of perfume and going, “Mmmmm!”andrandom clips of Stegemann giving motivational speeches to rapt audiences should have tipped me off. You had a solid story, an engaging and charismatic subject, and any number of thematic threads to pick up, but your final product is just 90-odd minutes oftedious corporate shilling.