'The Price of Sugar': Way Too Steep

In its look at exploited field workers in the Dominican Republic,
In its look at exploited field workers in the Dominican Republic, "The Price of Sugar" employs a visual vocabulary as compelling as its subject. (Mitropoulos Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

Who said authenticity has to be ugly?

Two activist documentaries, "The Price of Sugar" and "War/Dance," give lie to the expectation that nonfiction films about searing social issues must look bad to be believed. Dispensing with the v¿rit¿ conventions of jumbled, hand-held camera work and muddy-looking video, both are handsome, even slick, productions as they follow the compelling journeys of their surpassingly camera-ready protagonists. In a medium where low production values are often assumed to be a corollary of objective truth, "The Price of Sugar" and "War/Dance" stand as impressive reminders that even the most judicious documentaries aren't journalism but storytelling.

Which is not to cast doubt on the damning truths both films reveal. "The Price of Sugar," which won an award at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival, joins a long line of documentaries lifting the veil on where American consumer products come from and how they're produced, in this case the refined sugar to which the country is addicted. It turns out that most of our sugar is grown in the Dominican Republic, where the majority of the sugar plantations are owned by the Vicini family. "The Price of Sugar," which was directed by Bill Haney, chronicles the lives and labors of the migrant Haitian workers imported by the family to harvest the sugar cane, as well as the poverty and indentured servitude that becomes their lot.

With its story of suffering and desperation and images of maimed and malnourished families, "The Price of Sugar" could easily become a litany of misery, but Haney found an almost-too-good-to-be-true hero in the person of the Rev. Christopher Hartley, a Catholic priest in the Dominican Republic who has made it his life's work to assist the migrant laborers in achieving humane living and working conditions.

Handsome (George Clooney might play him in the biopic), eloquent and fired by an ethic of service honed by years working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, Hartley is the ideal guide through what otherwise would be a living hell. While he incurs the wrath of the Vicinis and the national media -- which makes the anti-immigrant rants of Lou Dobbs sound like Joan Baez singing "Kumbaya" -- Hartley manages to lead the laborers in organizing for small but significant changes, such as houses with walls and indoor plumbing.

He also happens to have a jaw-dropping personal story, the details of which are best saved for viewing "The Price of Sugar" for the first time. But suffice it to say that somehow Haney has taken a story of outrage and injustice and made a film that's as much an inspiring story of spiritual awakening as it is a call to action.

Inspiration is also the cornerstones of "War/Dance," Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's superb film about a troupe of children in northern Uganda who compete at a national music and dance competition. Although it bears a resemblance to such competition films as "Spellbound" and "Mad Hot Ballroom," this by turns searing and uplifting film make those stories look like the child's play that they are.

The children of "War/Dance" are refugees, having been orphaned, abducted and terrorized by a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army. Interspersed with scenes of their rehearsals are stark monologues in which these young people dispassionately report the unspeakable horrors they've witnessed and survived. When they travel to Kampala for the big contest, they aren't fighting for a trophy. They're fighting for their emotional and spiritual survival.

Photographed by Fine with an eye toward capturing Uganda's lush landscape, "War/Dance" does an exceptionally good job of juxtaposing the natural beauty of the country with the human ugliness inside it. The film never delves into the politics of the conflict, which remains a vague but seemingly intractable fact of life for the thousands of families and children it has displaced. Instead, the team focuses on three children -- Dominic, an aspiring xylophone player; Nancy, a 14-year-old girl whose father was dismembered in front of her mother; and Rose, a regal, severely traumatized orphan. With these appealing protagonists, and using stirring images and music, the filmmakers fashion a classic underdog story with unusually high stakes: Will they manage to find joy in the midst of outrage and grief?

Wearing its emotional manipulation on its sleeve, "War/Dance" is example of how technical prowess and shrewd storytelling can be deployed to worthy ends, in this case humanizing a story that is too often dismissed as arcane and remote. With media outlets closing foreign bureaus nearly every day, and an American culture that is turning ever inward, "War/Dance" and "The Price of Sugar" perform a crucial service that, while it shouldn't be confused with journalism, still plays a valuable role in providing context and a sense of human connection. These are important stories, well told with urgency, passion and artistry. Raising issues from which it is all too tempting to turn away, they succeed at a nearly impossible task: They invite us, with warmth and compassion, to look.

The Price of Sugar (90 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated but contains some disturbing images.

War/Dance (105 minutes, at AMC Loews Dupont Circle) is rated PG-13 for some adult themes, including descriptions of war atrocities.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company