Perfume War

Perfume War is not just about Barb Stegemann’s successful perfume company, 7 Virtues, which marries capitalism with social consciousness. It’s about the Canadian entrepreneur’s principles and life story which guided the creation and growth of her Nova Scotia-based company.

And it all began with a friendship.

Stegemann met her best friend Captain Trevor Greene in university, and the two shared an affinity for social consciousness (particularly women’s rights), writing and journalism. Greene famously suffered an axe wound to the head and a severe brain injury while serving in Afghanistan. This compelled Stegemann to continue her friend’s mission to help women in the war-torn country.

So she made perfume.

But not just any perfume. Her research into Afghanistan’s economy exposed a corrupt agricultural system in which poppy flowers — responsible for the majority of heroin production around the world — deny Afghan families their safety, freedom and autonomy from the Taliban. Stegemann decided to help make other forms of agriculture in Afghanistan a financial possibility, so she bought orange blossom oil from an Afghan farmer who refused to give in to the Taliban’s system of corruption.

Perfume War tracks the tale of Stegemann’s corporate success but combines it within a shared framework of her empowering friendship with Greene. As a result, the film benefits from having two uplifting and forward-moving narratives. Greene’s is the more linear story about the length and extent of his recovery, whether he’ll be able to walk again, and the acknowledgement of the darker side of PTSD. The tale of Stegemann’s business has more layers — what happens after the media buzz of her Dragon’s Den success – wherein her presentation moved two of the investors to tears – dies down? What happens when 7 Virtues is pitted against the giants of the perfume business? How does a company so heavily tied to its social values stay profitable and competitive?

Perfume War, to its credit, is very good at pinpointing exactly when the viewer will start to have these questions, and coming up with the answers. The doc also doesn’t hide from exposing the ugliness of world issues, but the tonal shifts between acknowledging the plights of people around the world — like Afghan women and Rwandan genocide survivors — and the feel-good success of Stegemann’s business can sometimes feel a little off.

Because the film is heavily framed through the lofty, feel-good perspectives of both Stegemann and Greene — who have captured the popular media’s attention for their inspiring life trajectories — the doc sometimes softens the real horrors of the global issues that its subjects are trying to tackle. At the same time, it’s also refreshing to see positive imagery of normal Afghan people in a Western documentary. And it’s not all about the fuzzy feelings, either.

Perfume War has real substance. The doc is smart enough to identify and provide compelling answers for how and why socially conscious business models are the only sustainable form of capitalism for the future.

Originally published in The National Post (April 12, 2017).