Dir: Bill Haney. US. 2007. 90min
One the stand-out documentaries at Austin's SXSW festival this past spring was Bill Haney's The Price of Sugar, a sobering and well-done examination of the unpleasant realities behind the sugar tens of millions of Americans innocently sprinkle over their cereal in the morning.
A theatrical release for this often dramatic and riveting film, which sports exceptionally high production values, seems a stretch. But television outlets around the world should give it a serious look, and it could also do very well on DVD, especially if marketed to the same demographic and in the same word-of-mouth manner which made Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth so commercially and politically successful. It next screens at IDA's Docuweek in LA (Aug 17 to 23) and will have festival bookings throughout the year.
The most shocking revelation in the film is found not too far inland from the pristine beaches of the Dominican Republic, best known as the Caribbean island retreat for the family travelling on a limited holiday budget. Here lie what can best be described as modern-day concentration camps, in which dispossessed, impoverished Haitians (who come from the other, western half of the island known as Hispaniola) are forced to work cutting sugarcane for inhumanly long hours in back-breaking circumstances. They are paid just enough money keep themselves and their sickly, uneducated children barely alive.
Lured across the mountainous border from Haiti, where their daily lives are already miserable enough, these Haitians (who bear the additional handicap of being despised by the lighter-skinned Dominicans) soon enough find that they have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. At least in Haiti, they didn't have armed guards patrolling day and night to keep them by force on the subhuman, plantations, lest they flee.
What separates The Price of Sugar from the proliferation of other run-of-the-mill outraged progressive documentaries is its focus on a charismatic, almost suicidally-driven Spanish priest named Christopher Hartley (his name derives from the fact that his father is British). Father Hartley has taken on the Dominican establishment, the government, the cynical media bent on perpetuating myths about the Haitians for their own purposes, and, above all, the sugar companies that profit mightily from this indentured servitude.
Clearly on a divinely-inspired mission derived from twenty years of working with Mother Theresa, Father Hartley earnestly follows her simple advice to 'love the poor.' Provocatively challenging the status quo, the priest brings in doctors to tend to the sick Haitian children and incites the workers to strike. Unsurprisingly, none of this sits too well with the powers that be, nor even with the poorest Dominicans, misled by their own racism, who daily threaten Father Hartley's life. Much of the film's suspense--and for a documentary, it is enormously suspenseful--comes from our fear, with each new provocation, that he has finally gone too far.
The ultimate point of the film, of course, is to awaken the benighted viewer to realise the extent of his own responsibility involved in that simple little spoonful of sugar. This is familiar territory for director Haney, whose previous documentary - he has made a total of four - aimed in more or less the same direction. Called Life Among Whales (2005), the film seeks to examine human-whale relations in the person of a charismatic whale activist named Dr. Roger Payne and, by extension, vividly demonstrates our quickly deteriorating relations with our non-human fellow inhabitants of this severely stressed planet.
Mitropoulos Films (+ 1 310 273 1444)
Father Christopher Hartley
Paul Newman (narrator)