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Nothing sweet about 'The Price of Sugar'

The documentary about Haitian cane workers is stirring up lawmakers and lawyers.

October 19, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

In the new documentary "The Price of Sugar," Haitian immigrants are featured living in medieval squalor and their barefoot children work next to elderly men, cutting sugar cane on Dominican plantations that supply U.S. households. Their remote shantytowns are enforced by barbed wire fences and patrolled by shotgun-wielding guards. There's little medical care and barely enough food to survive.

"There is no death worse than this," a worker named Jhonny Belizaire says in the film.

"The Price of Sugar," which opens today in L.A., isn't the first film to chronicle the plight of the Haitian immigrants in Dominican sugar cane fields. But its influence has been powerful and swift. Since its debut on the film festival circuit last March, the documentary has sparked interest from California's outspoken Haitian advocate Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), and Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) has requested a copy to screen for the House Human Rights Caucus. Meanwhile, the plantation-owning Vicini family tried to legally block the film's release and, when that didn't work, its Washington lawyers filed a slander suit, claiming the film misleads viewers and includes fabricated scenes.

Directed by Bill Haney, the film chronicles Catholic priest Father Christopher Hartley's dramatic battle to win basic rights for employees of the Vicini family. During the course of his campaign in the film, Hartley wins workers some small victories -- a few cinder-block homes with running water and a tiny pay raise for sugar cane cutters. He recruits American doctors to treat workers and establishes a kitchen to feed hundreds of immigrant children. In the film, Hartley even organizes a strike among the immigrants on 23 plantations, known as "bateyes." Foreign reporters begin to seek him out, and each dispatch muddies the Vicinis' reputation by bringing the Haitians' sad stories to the world.

But his efforts also provoke death threats and inspire nationalism from Dominicans and the nation's media who perceive Hartley's efforts as unfairly biased. They demand to know why Hartley helps illegal immigrants when the jobless Dominicans are themselves are so poor and needy. Strangely, most Dominicans ignore the plantation owners' role. In one episode, machete-toting protestors, who the film asserts were paid by the Vicinis to force Hartley out, gather in the streets and threaten the priest. The film concludes with Hartley vowing never to leave.

"I would be a fraud if I took one step back," he says in the film.

But, in late 2006, the Catholic Church orders Hartley home to Spain and he obliges, in large part, he now says, to spend time with his dying father. Still, he continues to closely monitor conditions on the Dominican plantations by phone, he said, and he is petitioning U.S. ambassadors and United Nations emissaries to help the Haitians. He won't say where he lives, only that he's stationed in Africa.

"I always said there were only two ways they would get me out of there," Hartley said. "One was a bullet in my head, in a pine box. The other was that I was told to leave. I'm a Catholic priest. I was sent there by the church. The church, for whatever reasons, one day told me it's time to go. And I went home."

He was sent to the Dominican Republic in 1997. Hartley met Haney when the filmmaker was working with Infante Sano, a nonprofit dedicated to improving maternal and child health in Latin America, which Haney started with Harvard's Children's Hospital and Tim Disney. The priest invited the filmmaker to tour the plantations, in the hopes that Haney would make a documentary about the workers.

"When we got into this story and we discovered these conditions, we quickly discovered it went way beyond poverty," Haney said. "The Vicini thought I was inappropriately under the sway of the priest. I thought there would be another side to the story, even if it wasn't true, some mitigating tale.

"All they wanted to tell me was that they were the victims, that when they went through the country people didn't look at them exactly the same way. The only conclusion I could come to was they'd do things to improve conditions . . . [not because] they had a change of mind, but that public relations obligated them to do it."

Hartley and Haney contend that there is no good reason for the workers to live such abysmal lives. The cost to Dominican plantation owners to improve conditions is negligible, the film notes, compared with the enormous profit the sugar barons reap from the American market.

In August, Felipe Vicini Lluberes and Juan Vicini Lluberes filed suit in U.S. District Court in Boston against Haney and his Uncommon Productions claiming the filmmaker manufactured scenes and misled viewers to believe that the most shocking images -- children working the fields, a worker with an untreated skin disease -- were employees of Vicini plantations when in fact they lived elsewhere.

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