Family Accuses 'Sugar' Filmmakers of Defamation

That tablespoon of sugar in your coffee is the subject of a new documentary film. The Price of Sugar examines the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic through the eyes of a Roman Catholic priest named Father Christopher Hartley.

For nine years, Hartley waged an escalating war with one of the wealthy plantation families over their treatment of the migrant Haitian workers who live and work there. The film involves two narratives — one on camera, and one off.

It's hard to imagine Hartley was not hired for this role. Tall and powerfully built, rakishly handsome, with salt and pepper hair and an accent betraying his Spanish aristocracy, Father Hartley is as comfortable with the camera as he is with his mission: to change the plight of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic.

"I arrived in the Dominican Republic in September 1997," you hear him say in the film, as he bounces down the dusty roads in his jeep. "Gradually, I began to learn more about their situation. What I discovered was truly appalling."

Documenting Abuses

The camera follows the priest as he greets Haitian migrants who have crossed the border illegally and now live in the bateyes, or compounds within the sugar plantations. Speaking from Spain, Hartley says the workers drink from the same water source as oxen. They have no electricity or toilets. They're forbidden to leave the plantation.

"People were denied very frequently the freedom to congregate, for example, the freedom to come to mass," he says. "People were not paid in cash. Children would sow the sugar cane fields for approximately 25 cents a day, and this would include pregnant women and young girls."

Ten years ago, the priest began documenting what he saw, snapping digital photographs of a young boy working in the field, an armed guard, an old man with a finger missing, a painfully malnourished child. By October 2004, Hartley had amassed a stack of evidence, when some American volunteers arrived in his parish to deliver medical supplies. Bill Haney, a documentary filmmaker, was among them. Haney says as they talked over dinner, he asked the priest what he could do for him. The priest did not answer right away.

"The next morning he called me and said, 'I'd be very grateful for your medical supplies and support. But I really think a film about some of the issues that I'm seeing in this parish might have something valuable to say,'" Haney recalls.

Haney hesitated. Then he learned that American consumers "subsidize" the misery of the Haitian workers. The Dominican Republic has a preferential trade deal with the U.S., which purchases most of its sugar.

'A Turning Point in the Struggle'

Haney spent two years filming, as Hartley tried to win better conditions for the Haitians. One day, after some new arrivals complained that they did not know what their wages would be, Hartley began urging them to go on strike until they were told. As he spoke, a crowd gathered around, as did the company guards.

"I turned around, with my back to the bosses, and faced the crowd. I said, 'I propose that none of you goes to work until you're told. And then it is your right to remain on the plantation or to leave," he recalls. "This was a turning point in the struggle."

The strike was also a turning point in the priest's fortunes. He had become a headache to the Vicini family, which owned many of the plantations in Hartley's parish. The family and its employees grew openly hostile to the priest — and to the filmmaker.

"I kept thinking there would be another side of the story," Haney says. He says he gave the Vicini family a chance to be interviewed, flying a film crew down from Boston to be at the ready in case they wanted to talk.

"I had expected to be told any series of explanations for why the conditions we saw were soon to be cured," Haney says. "And that wasn't their position. They didn't want to go on camera, and the other side of the story wasn't clear to me. They were more comfortable with the conditions that their workers were struggling under than I ever would have expected."

Ousted from the Country

The film culminates in a near violent protest to eject Hartley from the country. People interviewed in the film said the Vicini family played on the traditional tensions between the Dominicans and the Haitians, and paid Dominicans to rally against the priest. In the film, Hartley's supporters appear to win the day. But they did not win the war. The Catholic Church removed the priest in late 2006, after the filming had wrapped.

"The family, the government, and I think even the church was tired of me," the priest says ruefully. "I don't think the church wanted to endure this constant bashing in every newspaper, day after day after day."

As the arc of one story was winding down, another was taking off — this one, off camera.

Legal Repercussions

"The misrepresentation are very egregious," says Read McCaffrey, a partner in the law firm Patton Boggs, "and as deceptive as I have seen in a very long time. "

McCaffrey is representing the Vicini family in a defamation suit filed in federal district court in Massachusetts. The family wants the film pulled from theaters — a request that First Amendment lawyers say no court would grant. The Vicinis are also suing for unspecified damages. McCaffrey, a partner at the powerful law firm Patton Boggs, says his researchers found 53 specific errors in the film.

"These scenes — the overly dramatized, made up, staged situations, for whatever reason, targeting the Vicinis as some kind of monsters in the sugar industry — are simply untrue," the lawyer says.

Corroborating Claims of Abusive Practices

The U.S. State Department did not call the Vicinis monsters. But its 2006 human rights report on the Dominican Republic stated that Dominican sugar plantations lacked such basics as sewage systems, and confirmed that they withheld wages to ensure the workers would return. Moreover, the State Department cited the Vicinis by name as allegedly trucking in undocumented Haitians.

For his part, filmmaker Bill Haney says the Vicinis' complaint does not address any of the film's cornerstone principles.

"Are Haitians taken across the border? Is there forced labor? Do children work in the fields? What kind of access to health care do these people have? What kind of access to education do they have?" Haney says. "They ask us questions like, on what street corner was the light placed when you took that shot? They want to drag us down to some small amount of picayune issues, and not deal with the central questions."

Is the Movie's 'Core' Correct?

A film can have flaws and still survive a legal challenge, says First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams.

"If the core of the movie is correct, if the most serious charges are true, then the fact that maybe some errors along the way in details would not be enough to permit a successful libel suit," Abrams says.

But Read McCaffrey says that's precisely where the film runs into trouble. McCaffrey cites the scene in which Hartley points at a mound in what he calls an unmarked cemetery, and states that a man was beaten by an Vicini employee and buried in a shallow grave.

"If you accuse someone of killing workers and burying them in a graveyard with no marker, covering up your crime — if that isn't a desperately rotten core, I don't know what is," McCaffrey says.

The priest says later in the film that he did not have absolute proof of his allegation. Filmmaker Haney says that taken in context, the story does not defame the Vicinis.

"The point of it was not to accuse anybody of murder, because I don't think there's any suggestion that anybody intended this man to die," he says. "But rather it was to highlight the disregard for basic human rights that take place commonly in this plantation. I don't feel uncomfortable with that."

A Better Outcome for the Workers

A court may well decide the end of the legal story. The Haitian workers in Hartley's former parish, however, have seen some resolution to their story. A small number of new cement houses with electricity and water have been built. There are a few rural clinics now, and an ambulance. The guards no longer carry guns, and the Haitians can venture beyond the plantation boundaries. But Father Hartley doubts the plantation owners have suddenly gotten religion.

"It's changed because the irony is that those who inflicted terror are now terrorized. They're afraid of negative publicity. They're afraid of NPR. They're afraid of Bill Haney and a documentary," Hartley says. 'So they are changing only because they are afraid that the exposure of this horror is going to affect their financial interests."

Hartley is now working with Mother Teresa's missionaries of Charity, an organization he worked with 20 years ago.

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