The Price of Sugar

  • Documentary
  • Written by Bill Haney and Peter Rhodes
  • Directed by Bill Haney

Catch this film if you need another reason to feel guilty about eating sweets.

In fact, catch this film if you care about basic human decency. It’s one of the best documentaries of the year.

Billy Haney’s expose of the Dominican Republic’s sugar industry takes us into a world where illegal immigrants from Haiti effectively become slaves. Kept behind barbed wire and controlled by armed guards, they’re imprisoned on the plantation and paid in vouchers redeemable only at the company store.

Rare for a documentary, The Price of Sugar has a hero: Catholic priest Father Christopher Hartley. The son of a wealthy Englishman and a Spanish aristocrat, Father Christopher seems a strange choice for the part. But he’s determined, compassionate, and if he isn’t fearless, he’s able to master his own fear and not back down in the face of setbacks, propaganda campaigns, and death threats.

He’s also multilingual, articulate, and photogenic.

The conditions he exposes and tries (with moderate success) to change are horrifying. The sugar company smuggles laborers in from over the border and never allows them to leave. Their “pay” scarcely covers their dietary needs. There’s no medical care, and half the adult population has tuberculosis. Anyone who manages to escape is an illegal alien in a country where Haitians are deeply despised.

Haney built his documentary like a suspense movie. As Father Christopher works to help these people, the plantation owners and the government threaten him and run a high-level smear campaign. The climax involves an anti-Hartley, anti-Haitian demonstration that may or may not turn into a riot.

My one complaint. Celebrity narrator Paul Newman adds nothing. Considering how much we hear Father Christopher’s voice, onscreen and off, third-person narration feels superfluous. And Newman sounds so flat and disinterested you can almost see him reading the script.

Besides, it’s a little odd to hear a man who sells cookies talk about the evils of sugar.