Sunday, September 16, 2007

BFF: The Price of Sugar

Contemporary "issue" documentaries are an odd thing; the pipeline between filming and any sort of theatrical release is long enough that some sort of update is invitably necessary at the end, since things will have changed in the time since filming completed. For The Price of Sugar, for instance, we learned in the Q&A that Father Christopher Hartley has been reassigned from Los Llanos, Dominican Republic to somewhere in Ethiopia, and some of his efforts - the meal center, for instance - have been shut down, although the sugar companies are supposedly reforming (although it's a lot of announcements and not much action so far). I wonder if digital technology can do something to help with that turnaround time, so that films like this can get into theater while they're still very contemporary.

The Price of Sugar

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Everything we eat and use, it seems, has some sort of despicable behavior involved at some point in the supply chain. Why should sugar be any different? At least in documenting this, The Price of Sugar is also able to show that the Haitian migrant workers on the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic have advocates who seem to be doing some small bit of good.

As poor as the Dominican Republic is, the people of Haiti are even poorer. Thus, Dominican sugar companies "hire" Haitian workers - smuggling them into the country, stripping them of their identity papers, housing them in squalor, paying them in vouchers only good at overpriced company stores, and just barely enough to maybe survive at that. Several of these sugar plantations, called bateys, owned and operated by the powerful Vicini family surround Los Llanos, where Father Christopher Hartley is the local parish priest. Upon seeing the conditions, he does everything he can to secure proper nutrition and health care, along with a fair wage. The Vicinis are powerful, though, and even if they can't directly attack a Catholic priest, they can certainly manipulate public opinion.

There's no shortage of powerful images and anecdotes, especially later in the film when the Vicinis have inflamed public opinion against Father Christopher. As much as images of distended bellies and skin diseases are reliably horrifying, the antipathy between Haitians and Dominicans is something I'd only been vaguely aware of, especially when it's explained in part by "Haitians are a little blacker". I don't mean to discount the very real human rights abuses and terrible conditions displayed on an individual level, but the cynicism of a private company starting riots to rid themselves of one man is something that you don't often see in this type of film.

Having that one man as a focal point is a boon from a storytelling point of view, but introduces its own problems. Father Christopher comes from an interesting background, has a great deal of personal charisma, and is very good on camera. He's clearly media-savvy enough to see director Bill Haney as a potential ally in his crusade, and gets a lot of face time, both in one-on-one interviews and leading the filmmakers through the bateys. Still, Father Christopher's story proves to be a bit of a distraction; we don't need to spend ten minutes in the middle of the movie learning about his privileged childhood, for instance. As a result, the film at least partly succumbs to the trap of familiarity: Zeroing in on the rich white man when the vast majority of the victims are poor and black.

(And even while doing that, the filmmakers seem to leave a few obvious questions unasked. For instance, we're told that the Hartley family fortune comes from jams and jellies; it seems almost natural to ask if they use Dominican sugar, or if they've changed their practices because of Christopher's work. This irony is goes uncommented upon.)

Of course, many of the other players are not going to be willing to appear on-screen anyway. The Vicinis are described as secretive in any event, so it's not surprising that none appear to be interviewed. Their head of security, Mertité, is seen from afar and looms large in the other characters' descriptions, but never comments directly. We do get to see videotaped footage of Dario, one of the "recruiters" who brings Haitians across the border and actually came to Father Christopher seeking justice when the Vicinis didn't pay him. And maybe Father Pedro Ruquay, another priest actively seeking better treatment, simply did not want to participate as much as Father Christopher.

For all that, Haney and company do a good job of putting the documentary together, although the graphics in front of a stark image of pouring sugar can sometimes be a little overwrought (as is the sometimes superfluous narration by Paul Newman). They do manage to talk to a lot of people and get their cameras into interesting places. They also manage to show a lot of the concrete good that Father Christopher and company have accomplished, making the film more than just a simple snapshot.

Of course, it's an evolving situation; things have already changed for better and worse since the film has finished shooting. Not so much that what we see is no longer important or interesting, though, and even if it someday is, the story itself is still a good one.

Also at eFilmCritic

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