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'Price of Sugar' documentary offers food for thought

Talia Whyte | 8/18/2009, 7:06 a.m.

Sugar is one of the most used commodities in the world, but few people think about the story behind the sweetener in their coffee cups. Local filmmaker Bill Haney’s new documentary suggests that if they did, they would realize that sugar is not only a political landmine, but also quite literally a life and death issue.

Haney’s controversial “The Price of Sugar,” which debuts for Greater Boston audiences tomorrow at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, explores modern day slavery and racial strife at one sugar cane plantation in the Dominican Republic. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 report on human rights in the Caribbean island, there are over 650,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants living and working in Dominican sugar cane camps known as “bateyes.” Many of these immigrants come to the Dominican Republic hoping to escape political and economic unrest in their homeland, but soon find themselves in an even direr situation.

The workers’ journey begins when they are smuggled across the Haitian border during the night, and are immediately stripped of any identification. Once in the bateyes, they are placed under harsh conditions, forced to work 12 hours a day cutting cane and making only enough money to sometimes buy one meal a day. They live in substandard housing with limited or no electricity or running water, and Haitian children have inadequate access to education. The immigrants also have limited access to health care; many die from preventable illnesses like diarrhea and malnutrition.

If the workers try to escape, they are subject to beatings, or worse, murder, by armed guards. Even if they make it out of the bateyes, without any identifying documentation they can’t even leave town, let alone return to Haiti.

Haney became aware of the situation a couple of years ago while doing volunteer work with Dr. Kim Wilson, a Children’s Hospital Boston pediatrician who provides health care services for the underprivileged in Latin America. While volunteering in the Dominican Republic, Haney met Rev. Christopher Hartley, who cares for both Dominicans and Haitian sugar cane cutters in his parish. For over three years, the priest has been battling with the Vicini family — one of five owners of sugar plantations in the country — to provide better living and working conditions for their workers.

Hartley asked Haney to come back and document the plight of the Haitians. Enthused by the priest’s dedication, Haney agreed.

“The father is inspirational,” said Haney during a telephone interview from New Orleans, where he is on location shooting his next film. “I felt really motivated by the work he is doing.”

Though he grew up privileged in Spain and England, Hartley has a long history of working for the rights of the poor. At the age of 15, he dropped out of school to become a priest, and as a young man in 1977 he traveled to India to work with Mother Teresa in her Home for the Dying.

In the Dominican Republic, Hartley has built housing compounds and created social service programs for the Haitians, much to the dismay of the native Dominican population — the documentary shows death threats against Hartley posted on street signs. The priest finds himself caught in the middle of the long, estranged relationship between Dominicans and Haitians, which dates back to the days of colonialism and nearly boils over into a deadly race riot in the film.

While the human rights violations and Hartley’s struggles may interest some, the question remains: Why should Americans in general care about this problem?

The answer: The Dominican Republic is the largest supplier of sugar to the United States through preferentially negotiated import restrictions and quotas. According to Haney, although the sugar industry only makes up 1 percent of American agricultural business, it contributes more money to politicians than any other agricultural lobbyist group in the country. And because of preferential trade agreements, Dominican sugar is sold at twice the price of sugars imported from the rest of the world — with American consumers subsidizing the cost.

For obvious reasons, the Vicini family is none too happy with Haney’s film — they have hired Miami-based public relations firm Newlink to clear their tainted reputation in America, and Haney says that Grupo Vicini, the family’s corporation, has made every effort to make sure the documentary is not seen in the Dominican Republic. A Washington law firm has also sent a cease-and-desist order to Haney on the Vicinis’ behalf, arguing that 45 statements in the film made false accusations against them.

“They think that because they have a lot of money, they can push around human rights filmmakers who usually don’t have a lot of money,” Haney said.

Nonetheless, Haney says “The Price of Sugar” has been well received not only by Haitian Americans, but also by audiences at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Congressmen will view the film in Washington this week with Father Hartley in attendance, and Haney says he is working closely with Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern on this issue.

Despite that momentum, there have been negative developments since Haney shot his film over a year ago. Hartley was forced out of the Dominican Republic last year by his diocese because of the hostility surrounding his efforts, and now lives in Ethiopia. Since his departure, the housing and social services he created have not been maintained.

However, Haney is hopeful the film will inspire viewers to think twice about what they eat and what impact their everyday choices can have on the lives of others.

“I hope people enjoy the film,” he said, “but I also hope they will be engaged in what is going in the world.”

“The Price of Sugar” debuts tomorrow in an exclusive one-week Boston-area engagement at Kendall Square Cinema, 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge. For show times and ticket information, call 617-499-1996.