The Price of Sugar




A number of documentaries during the past few years have taken aim at the bad behavior of American government and business. Many of these focus on Iraq, but "The Price of Sugar" travels to another part of the world, where American policies have not always fostered decency or compassion. Bill Haney's disturbing film is set in the Dominican Republic, where most American sugar imports are produced. The film exposes the slave labor on which the country's sugar industry is built. But what keeps it from being just another angry screed is its portrayal of a most unusual hero, a Catholic priest named Father Christopher Hartley, who has set out to improve the lot of the sugar cane workers in that country.

In Latin America, priests often have been political activists, fighting for their parishioners in more than just an abstract spiritual sense. Hartley has an unusual background: He was born in Europe, and his father was a British industrialist, while his mother came from an aristocratic family in Spain. He found his vocation when he went to work with Mother Teresa in India, then traveled to the Dominican Republic, where he has rankled the country's rulers.

The situation of the sugar cane workers is unique and tragic. They are primarily Haitian immigrants who enter the country illegally and are then stripped of their identity cards and kept in primitive conditions on the country's vast sugar plantations. They are scorned by the citizens of the Dominican Republic, as one person in the film suggests, because they are "poorer and blacker" than the country's natives. Yet the owners of the plantations exploit their desperation to hire them as little more than indentured servants. One cannot help seeing parallels to the situation of illegal immigrants in the U.S., who are courted by employers seeking cheap labor but despised by much of the rest of the population.

While the political implications of the film are provocative, "Sugar" also happens to be an impressive cinematic achievement. This picture has a visual sweep that many docu films lack; the plantations and nearby towns are vividly evoked. A scene in the plantation's desolate cemetery is especially haunting. Peter Rhodes' editing strikes just the right balance of the personal and the political, and Paul Newman's heartfelt narration lends considerable dignity to the film.

Unlike some other political docus, this one boasts a guarded sense of optimism. Hartley, along with Peace Corps volunteers and doctors whom he brought from the U.S., has made an appreciable difference in the lives of the workers. Although the priest has been threatened with expulsion from the country, he has managed to win some slight but measurable improvements in the working conditions on the plantations. Yet the film still makes us think about our own responsibility for the lives of people whose products we eagerly consume while remaining blithely ignorant about the social conditions under which those goods were manufactured. The filmmakers deserve credit for opening our eyes.

Uncommon Prods.
Director: Bill Haney
Screenwriters: Bill Haney, Peter Rhodes
Producers: Eric Grunebaum, Bill Haney
Executive producer: Tim Disney
Directors of photography: Eric Cochran, Jerry Risius
Music: Claudio Ragazzi
Co-executive producers: Abby Disney, Kees Kasander, Marie Langlois
Editor: Peter Rhodes
Narrator: Paul Newman
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating