So desperate for work, they often pay to be smuggled across the border.

The Price of Sugar

on September 26, 2007 by Chad Greene
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Documenting the decidedly un-sweet lives of Dominican cane cutters

Distributor: Mitropoulos
Narrator: Paul Newman
Director: Bill Haney
Screenwriters: Bill Haney and Peter Rhodes
Producers: Eric Grunebaum and Bill Haney
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 90 min.
Release dates: September 26, 2007 NY


A pound of raw sugar trades for less than 10 cents a pound on the Coffee Sugar and Cocoa Exchange, but as director Bill Haney documents here, The Price of Sugar is much higher.


While in the Dominican Republic to shoot footage of an American pediatrician who was setting up clinics for poor children, Haney was introduced to Father Christopher Hartley. A dedicated disciple of the late Mother Teresa, the priest was fighting to bring attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Haitians forced into a form of pseudo-slavery as cane cutters on sprawling sugar plantations. As Paul Newman points out in his grave, gravelly narration, the first use of African slaves in the Americas was to cut cane on Hispaniola—the island that the modern nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti share—and current conditions aren’t appreciably better.


So desperate for work that they often pay to be smuggled across the border between the neighboring nations, the Haitians are systematically stripped of all forms of identification so they can never return home. Kept under armed guard in ramshackle barracks called bateyes, they are paid less than a dollar a day—not in cash, but in credit that can only be used to purchase overpriced items at a company store. Those who protest all too often wind up in unmarked graves in overgrown corners of the plantations.
Yet the charismatic Hartley manages to convince the workers to strike when the owners of a particular plantation refuse to tell the Haitians how much they’ll be paid during the coming harvest season.
“I’m not afraid because I believe there is no death worse than this,” says Jhonny Belizaire, indicating the batey where dirt-poor residents rely on chewing cane for so much of their caloric intake that many suffer from malnutrition.


Understandably, the powerful families that own the plantations are not fans of the rabble-rousing reverend and bribe media outlets to fan the flames of a paid protest that sends mobs of misinformed, nationalistic Dominicans—burning tires and brandishing machetes—into the streets outside of Hartley’s parish.


“I’m sure most American families would be embarrassed to know at what price they put sugar in their coffee every morning,” Hartley says at one point.


Whether the theatrical release of The Price of Sugar will make “most American families” aware of the situation, however, is doubtful. Although it won an audience award at the South by Southwest Film Festival this spring, television—where it would likely reach a larger audience—seems a more natural medium for this no-frills doc, which isn’t done any favors by Newman’s monotone narration. —

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