The Price of Sugar: Not for Those with a Sweet Tooth


price_of_sugar.jpgThanks to the Ethical Consumer and its list of boycotts, those of us who haven't turned our backs on any product in decades--possibly since Caesar Chavez's grapes and Coors beer--can now once again jump into the thick of things.

First, stop sipping that Coca-Cola because of "its repression of trade union activity in Colombia and its depletion of groundwater resources in India."

And get hopping mad at Adidas "for using kangaroo skin to make some types of football boots."

As for Donna Karan, snub her skirts and hold her company "accountable for the sweatshop conditions in its suppliers' factories."

The list goes on and on, but one product that you won't find there yet, and one you won't have any problem avoiding after viewing Bill Haney's potent documentary, The Price of Sugar, is the eponymous sweetener.

According to the astonishing footage captured by the filmmakers, over 100,000 impoverished Haitians (men, women, and children) have been persuaded to cross their border and sneak into the Dominican Republic on the promise of getting jobs cutting down sugar cane. Now they are stuck there.

Yes, once in D.R., the hopeful, often shoeless workers are settled into horrendous deteriorating shacks grouped into areas known as bateyes, or shantytowns. There they become virtual slaves, living without "schools, medical facilities, running water, and sewage systems," according to one 2006 U.S. Government report. Their legal papers are forcibly taken away from them so they have no choice but to remain in the bateyes.

The Price of Sugar looks through the eyes of one Father Christopher Hartley, the Mother Teresa of this locale, at the horrors these Haitians try to overcome. As he daily fights for the rights of these downtrodden souls, the good Christian makes some progress, but for each step forward, he receives a death threat or two. And his achievements are fragile ones that will no doubt disappear once he is deported--as the government and the Vicini family, who pretty much own the sugar cane industry in the D.R., are currently trying to do. (Must one add that U.S. trade policies are sanctioning this travesty by paying the D.R. twice the world price for sugar?) In the meantime, Father Hartley is rounding up doctors to treat his aching parishioners.

Look! "All the children have parasites and are malnourished," one inhabitant of these villages of the damned notes as the camera exposes the little victims born into this tragedy with their bloated stomachs and Kate-Moss thin arms.

Then we meet a man who is seen trying to cure a work-related injury with toothpaste. Another gent's cracking skin on his hands, arms, and legs seems to be ready to take a walk on its own, leaving its owner behind. Each image is an emotionally charged one.

But besides the grievous lives The Price of Sugar unearths, what is remarkable about this documentary are the numerous times its crew puts its own life at risk to capture incriminating footage.

The collective bravery of Father Hartley, the suffering Haitians, plus director Haney, cinematographers Eric Cochran and Jerry Risius, and sound recordists John Osborne and Thomas Knight is clearly made apparent by the illuminating narration, voiced with a laid-back intelligence by Paul Newman.

In the end, this is a fevered tale of an outsider, spurred on by his belief in God, who believes his role in life is to save a people, and for a while it seems he is making a difference. What film can top that nowadays?– Brandon Judell

brandon.jpgMr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Jewish Humor in Film" and "Queer Theater" at City College, has written about cinema for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.