Your sugar’s not so sweet

By Ryan Pike

In today’s hustle and bustle, time is at a premium. Sleep substitutes are often used to elongate the working day and allow the average person to do more than they could otherwise. The most widespread replacement for sleep is a cup of coffee, which is often served with cream and sugar to sweeten its bitter taste. However, the average person doesn’t often think about how sugar gets from the cane into those teeny, tiny packets. Bill Haney’s The Price of Sugar is an illuminating glimpse into the world of the Dominican Republic’s thriving sugar industry.

The Price of Sugar begins by introducing Spanish priest Christopher Hartley, a veteran of three decades in the service of the church assisting the poor and needy. The focus of the film is Hartley’s work assisting the illegal Haitian immigrants in his parish working in the sugarcane fields. The film also describes in detail the inner-workings of the industry, from smuggling workers over the border and paying off guards to their dealings with the media and propaganda attacks against Hartley.

If there’s a problem to be had with The Price of Sugar, it’s in the pacing. The first 25 minutes are used for a systematic dissection of the general state of the Dominican sugar industry–from sugarcane to sugar packet. The examination is so swift and so well done, once completed it’s difficult to imagine what the filmmakers have left to examine.

The filmmakers choose to zoom in on a particular region of the Dominican, focusing on Hartley’s battles with the Vicini family over the working and living conditions inside their sugarcane plantations. The largest part of the film is spent profiling Hartley, then framing his struggles against the Vicinis, the army, the government and the press to get better working conditions for the cane cutters. The issue of discrimination against the Haitians living in the Dominican Republic is also tackled, with much time devoted to explaining the historical grievances between Haiti and the Dominicans and the reasoning, however flawed, behind discriminatory behaviours.

Director Bill Haney positions the struggle between Hartley and the Vicini family as a David vs. Goliath situation, but is careful to include voices that provide more balance to the affair. Unfortunately, since the family would not consent to interviews, the only major voice criticizing Hartley is a Peace Corps member stationed in the Dominican Republic. The result is a film that, while seemingly making an effort to appear balanced, has a fairly obvious biased slant.

Given the nature of North American life, it’s unlikely that seeing a film–no matter how stirring–would scare folks away from their morning cup of coffee. The Price of Sugar puts a human face on how sugar gets into our morning beverages and at the very least will raise some discussion about where the sugar comes from and the price paid to bring it to us in those convenient little packets.

The Price of Sugar screens Thu., Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. in Murray Fraser Hall 162 as part of the Movies That Matter series.

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