THE PRICE OF SUGARNR
The Price of Sugar follows the exploits of Father Christopher Hartley, a Roman Catholic priest who, up until recently, led a campaign against the sugar cane barons of the Dominican Republic. They’re responsible for trafficking Haitians into the country to harvest the crop. (Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola.) The gleaners earn less than a dollar a day, which is paid in coupons that can only be redeemed at a company-run store. They live in “bateyes,” enclaves not fit for human habitation, which are overseen by armed guards who brutalize and kill their charges at will. These facts, all testified to in the film, should sound the clarion for free-trade sugar, but it doesn’t because The Price of Sugar is a tribute rather than a documentary: It’s Father Hartley’s application for sainthood.
Hartley, the scion of a wealthy Anglo-Spanish family, first practiced his vocation in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. His family’s fortune is built on jams, which are mostly sugar, an irony the filmmaker ignores. Hartley certainly appears devoted to the disenfranchised; he’s a throwback to the Liberation Theology priests of another era who were also inspired by Vatican II’s commitment to the poor. He has no problem talking about himself or his accomplishments, and he does so throughout most of the film. Haney makes matters worse by providing little objective evidence of the collusion of business and government—the corruption the priest says he is up against. For instance, there are no interviews with Dominican officials, or with experts in the global sugar market.
Haney is a skillful eulogist with a good eye for composing a shot. Some of the film’s images of the Haitians, including still photos taken by Hartley, are very moving, and eloquently portray the workers’ feelings of hopelessness. Haney, like his protagonist, builds a moral case against the Dominican government and the Vicini family, which has the largest sugar cane empire there. That effort would serve a useful journalistic purpose had Haney not shaped his film around Hartley’s investigations. Few will doubt the priest’s claims given the Dominican Republic’s appalling human-rights record; one only wishes they had been explored in an objective documentary format.