Sugar is bad for your health, according to nutritionists. But sugar turns out to be a villain in other ways, too. Bill Haney's film, "The Price of Sugar" (2006), explains in eye-opening terms the high cost to Haitian laborers of harvesting sugar for the United States and other markets.
The award-winning documentary, narrated by Paul Newman, is being presented Saturday, April 5, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society in conjunction with the Fish Farm for Haiti Project. All proceeds of the event, just one of a number sponsored cooperatively by the Film Society, will go to the Fish Farm Project.
"The Price of Sugar" opens with a mélange of bright colors, sunshine and lively Caribbean music, set not in Haiti, one of the world's most impoverished nations, but on the other side of the same island in the adjoining Dominican Republic, a vacationer's paradise.
The film shows desperate Haitians enticed to work in Dominican sugar cane plantations arriving at night under armed guard. Their identification cards are confiscated turning them into people without a country. Confined to the barb-wired bateyes (camps where they are housed), the Haitians cannot travel in the Dominican Republic without fear of arrest. Their 90-cent-a-day pay is barely enough for food, and the workers' children are malnourished and afflicted with parasites.
The film focuses on the efforts of Father Christopher Hartley to improve conditions for the Haitian workers. Descended from English and Spanish aristocracy, he entered the priesthood at 15 and became a disciple of Mother Theresa before his assignment to the Dominican parish of San José de los Llanos. During his ten years there, he helped the sugar cane laborers organize and win concessions, as well as spearheading an effort to feed the worker's children.
Director Bill Haney, who co-wrote "The Price of Sugar" with Peter Rhodes, keeps a steady hand on the film's advocacy and does not over-sentimentalize Father Hartley's role. He has directed three other documentaries in the last eight years, including "A Life Among Whales" (2005), "Racing Against the Clock" (2004), and "Gift of the Game" (2002).
Dominican sugar barons operate like a state within a state through complicity with the government and army. Their trade agreements with the United States ensure that Dominican sugar prices stay close to double the world rate. That way, American-grown price-supported sugar can compete with Dominican imports.
Death threats have not deterred the priest, and when the Dominican Republic's president came to one of the bateyes, Father Hartley took the ceremonial occasion to deliver a fiery speech, telling the Dominican leader, "You are at the threshold of hell." The ensuing scandal forced the sugar barons into discussions with the Roman Catholic Church.
The sugar barons have found ways to retaliate. Murdered workers disappear into unmarked cemeteries. When Father Hartley succeeded in getting the government to build housing for the workers, most of it went to Dominicans. Dominican agitators are paid to foment demonstrations against the Haitians. They demanded Father Hartley expulsion, and apparently succeeded, because last summer he was reassigned to Ethiopia. One question now is whether the sugar barons will rescind the concessions to workers they made while Father Hartley was there.
At a time in American history when immigrant and migrant labor is a hot-button issue with many extreme solutions in the air, it is chilling to view such a shocking case of foreign-labor exploitation, one in which most American consumers unwittingly participate.
"The Price of Sugar," Saturday, April 5, 7:30 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Presented by Martha's Vineyard Film Society. Tickets $8; $5 for film society members. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Brooks Robards reviews films and books for The Times.