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The Reeler Blog

Sugar on Top

By S.T. VanAirsdale

The Reeler dropped by the Bryant Park Hotel Monday night to take in a standing-room only screening of The Price of Sugar, Bill Haney's chronicle of illegal Haitian immigrants locked into servitude in the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic. Following the controversial Father Christopher Hartley on his parish rounds -- revealing medieval levels of squalor, pestilence, malnutrition and extreme poverty in the bateyes where crops are harvested -- and his ongoing social justice crusade for his parishioners, Sugar crafts a graphic, damning critique of its namesake industry.

Father Christopher Hartley with parishioners in The Price of Sugar (Photo: Uncommon Productions)

A tech-sector veteran turned philanthropist, Haney's activist filmmaking career began with 2002's A Life Among Whales. He met Hartley while visiting the Dominican Republic as part of an infant and maternal health care nonprofit he started with producing partner Tim Disney; persuaded to stay an extra day, Haney accompanied Hartley through fields where pre-teens worked alongside wizened elders cutting cane for 90 cents a day while armed guards stood watch. After nightfall, they returned to tiny barracks accommodating more than a hundred workers in some cases, ceilinged with barbed wire lest they were tempted to escape. They had crossed the Haitian/Dominican border illegally for the prospect of better wages, yet with their identification papers confiscated they couldn't leave the bateyes or even protest their standing. They're essentially slaves exploited in the culture war between unstable Haiti and the immigrant-hating Dominicans.

Before long, and under increasingly dangerous conditions for him and his subjects, Haney was shooting his fourth film. "They risked everything," Haney said. "They knew better than we did what could happen, and they wanted a voice. It was really important to them. And we didn't feel like it was our right to tell them they couldn't. After we saw some particularly egregious behavior toward people who were talking to us, we concentrated on a relatively small number of people we'd already interviewed and already knew."

Hartley, a Mother Teresa disciple, provides the backbone for both Haney and his parishioners, withstanding death threats and turbulent protests orchestrated by the Vicini family -- among the Dominican Republic's primary ruling interests and the owners of the most egregious plantations. To the extent he could, Hartley unionizes the workers (a move he says is endorsed by Vatican II, yet is depicted as an essentially secular exercise for which the current Vatican is said to have some ambivalence), and positions them for self-sufficiency amid growing cultural hostilities. In the film's climactic (and best) sequence, Hartley's supporters repel a TV commentator -- one of the D.R.'s most virulent xenophobes -- who attempts to break up a pro-Haitian throng in the priest's church.

Swearing off gotcha filmmaking, Haney instead met off-camera with the intensely reclusive Vicinis, who threatened him as well. " 'Are you sure for a million dollars you don't want to solve the problem?'," he said he asked them. "These guys are spending more money suing me now than it would cost to solve the problem. So I wrote and told them this is what we're doing. They told me I was a fool and that the priest was tricking me; the conditions were different. We had the furthest possible thing from a meeting of the minds. They wanted me to go to the country club for dinner; I wanted to show them the batey that they said was really wonderful."

Haney has since screened The Price of Sugar for the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and leaders on Capitol Hill, the latter of whom bristle at trade agreements that keep the United States paying 43 percent over world market price for Dominican sugar. The film has made the festival rounds as well, winning South by Southwest's audience award in 2006, but has yet to screen in the Dominican Republic (Haney said it could endanger the Dominicans who offer on-camera critiques of the Vicinis) and has yet to attain domestic distribution.

Nevertheless, Abby Disney -- Tim's sister and another of the film's producers -- emphasized the film's word-of-mouth success when introducing the film. "As a person who's worked a long time on issues around social justice and social change, I can tell you that you work and you work and you work, and all you can do is make people see what you see and feel what you feel," she said. "Its really difficult for that not to lead you in the direction of film and media. It's the most remarkable way of moving people, and I think that's what Bill has accomplished here. It's kind of the holy grail for people who do this work to take an issue that no one knows and no one understands and to bring people with you on a journey that arrives in the place you want them to be."

Posted at January 8, 2008 10:24 AM

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