Family Accuses 'Sugar' Filmmakers of Defamation The Price of Sugar tells the story of Haitians working in the Dominican Republic to harvest sugar cane. Lawyers for one of the powerful families that own several plantations there accuse the filmmakers of defamation.
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Family Accuses 'Sugar' Filmmakers of Defamation

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Family Accuses 'Sugar' Filmmakers of Defamation

Family Accuses 'Sugar' Filmmakers of Defamation

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The people who harvest the sugar and everything from your morning cup of coffee to the cupcakes at the local bakery are the subject of a new film. It's called "The Price of Sugar." It documents life on plantations in the Dominican Republic to the eyes of a Roman Catholic priest.

The Dominican Republic provides most of the sugar consumed here in the United States, and Father Christopher Hartley made it his mission to try to better the lives of the Haitian migrant workers there.

As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the priest's efforts have not made him or the filmmaker popular with the sugar industry.

Father CHRISTOPHER HARTLEY (Roman Catholic priest): I arrived in the Dominican Republic September '97. I have no idea of the magnitude, all that I was going to confront.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's hard to imagine Christopher Hartley was not hired for this role. Tall and powerfully built, rakishly handsome, with his 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.

Fr. HARTLEY: Gradually, I began to learn more about their situation. What I discovered was truly appalling.

HAGERTY: 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, Father 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.

Mr. HARTLEY: People were denied the freedom to congregate, for example, even to come to a mass. People were not paid in cash, children would sow the sugar cane fields, and this would sometimes also include pregnant women and young girls.

HAGERTY: Ten years ago, the priest began documenting what he saw, snapping photographs of a 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.

Mr. BILL HANEY (Documentary filmmaker): The next morning, he called me and said, you know, I'd be very grateful for your medical supply support, but I really think that a film about some of the issues that I'm seeing in this parish might have something valuable to say.

HAGERTY: Haney spent two years filming as Father Hartley tried to win better conditions for the Haitians, organizing them and ultimately urging them to go on strike until they were told what their wages would be.

Fr. HARTLEY: (Speaking in foreign language) I turned around, with my back to the bosses, and faced the crowd. I said, I propose that none of you go to work until you're told. And then, it is your right to remain on the plantation or to leave. (Speaking in foreign language) This was a turning point in the struggle.

HAGERTY: 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. Bill Haney says he met with the Vicini family and tried to interview them.

Mr. HANEY: I had expected to be told any series of explanations for why the conditions we saw were soon to be cured. 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.

HAGERTY: The film culminates in a near-violent protest to eject Father Hartley from the country.

(Soundbite of protests)

HAGERTY: 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. Hartley's supporters appear to win the day, but they did not win the war. The Catholic Church removed the priest in October 2006 after the filming had wrapped.

Fr. HARTLEY: The family, the government and, I think, also the church was tired of me.

HAGERTY: As the arc of one story was winding down, another was taking off. This one, off camera.

Mr. READ McCAFFREY (Partner, Patton Boggs LLP): The misrepresentations are very egregious and as deceptive as I have seen in a very long time.

HAGERTY: That's Read McCaffrey, who's representing the Vicini family in a defamation suit filed in a federal district court in Massachusetts. The family wants the film pulled from theaters, a request that First Amendment lawyer 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.

Mr. McCAFFREY: 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.

HAGERTY: For his part, filmmaker Bill Haney says the Vicini's complaint did not address any of the film's cornerstone principles.

Mr. HANEY: Are Haitians taken across the border? Is there forced labor? Do children work in the fields? What kind of access to health care did these people have? What kind of access to education do they have?

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

Mr. FLOYD ABRAMS (Lawyer): If the core of the movie is correct, if the most serious charges are true, then the fact that there may be some errors along the way in details would not be enough to permit a successful libel suit.

Mr. McCAFFREY: 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, then I don't know what is.

HAGERTY: Attorney Read McCaffrey is referring to a scene in which Father Hartley pointed a mound in what he calls an unmarked cemetery.

(Soundbite of documentary "The Price of Sugar")

Fr. HARTLEY: This is the man who was murdered the night of December 7th.

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

Mr. HANEY: The point of it was not to and is not to accuse anybody, particularly of murder, because I don't think there's any suggestion that anybody intended for this man to die, but rather to highlight the disregard for basic human rights that take place commonly in this plantation. I don't feel uncomfortable with that.

HAGERTY: A court may well decide the end of the legal story. The Haitian workers in Father Hartley's former parish, however, have seen some resolution to their story. A small number of 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 Christopher Hartley doubts the plantation owners have suddenly gotten religion.

Fr. HARTLEY: 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, so they are changing only because they are afraid that the exposure of this horror is going to affect their financial interests.

HAGERTY: Father Christopher Hartley is now working with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, an organization he served with 30 years ago.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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