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Bill Haney, The Price Of Sugar

FATHER CHRISTOPHER HARTLEY (CENTER) IN BILL HANEY’S THE PRICE OF SUGAR. COURTESY MITROPOULOS FILMS.

William M. Haney III — or Bill Haney to you and me — is one of those people who one suspects would be successful at almost anything he chose to turn his hand to. He started his first business while still an undergrad at Harvard, and made $15m when he sold his stock in the company, aged just 26. He then moved on to invest in two environmental companies and then a software company, continuing his success with all three. He first became interested in film when in the mid-1990s he met Errol Morris during the making of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, an encounter which planted the idea in his head that he become a documentarian. His first movie, Gift of the Game was about baseball and U.S-Cuban relations, and subsequent films have focused on political, social and environmental issues which Haney is passionate about. In addition to his documentaries, Haney also writes and produces fiction features through his production company, Uncommon Productions, and is currently shooting a biopic of Janis Joplin, The Gospel According to Janis, starring Zooey Deschanel.

Haney excels at letting the story take center stage in his documentaries, rather than complicating issues with a showy cinematic style, and The Price of Sugar is no exception. The tale here surrounds the efforts of Father Christopher Hartley, a priest in the Dominican Republic on a crusade to improve the conditions of illegal Haitian workers bussed in by the major sugar companies and who work in virtual slavery, while living in fear and extreme poverty. Hartley is a fascinating figure, a man who grew up rich but shunned money to work for Mother Teresa and has a clear desire to be a martyr, and yet the cause he is fighting for, revealed in all its dreadful detail by Haney, is the most compelling aspect of the film. True to Haney’s philanthropic instincts, he is not only active in the campaign to help the sugar cutters’ cause but is also the director of Infante Sano, an organization which helps young mothers and the babies in the Dominican Republic.

Filmmaker spoke to Haney about his segue from business to the movies, how documentarians stay subjective, and the overlap of filmmaking and philanthropy.

BILL HANEY, DIRECTOR OF THE PRICE OF SUGAR. COURTESY MITROPOULOS FILMS.

Filmmaker: How did you first become interested in documentary filmmaking?

Haney: I was thirty five years old, running a high tech company and harboring not the slightest inkling of ever working in film. My mom called and said she needed a favor. As it turned out, a childhood neighbor had become a subject in an uncompleted Errol Morris film. At twelve years old, George Mendonca dropped out of school to work as a gardener near the school where my dad taught, and I lived. After fifty years of work, he had become the world’s foremost topiary gardener. Errol chose him as one of the subjects in his film Fast, Cheap & Out of Control but the film ran into some snags and remained unfinished for some time. George was by now getting quite old and his wife told my mother that his greatest wish was to see Errol’s film finished before he died. I called Errol and offered to lend a hand. It was my first connection with documentary filmmaking.

Filmmaker: Do you usually discover the subjects for your documentaries, or do people more often come to you with a story they want you to tell?

Haney: My partner, Tim Disney, and I have yet to diagram a documentary in advance — plot it out with the care of intentionality. Rather, we stumble over a character, setting or story so captivating we’re willing to commit the years needed to squeeze what truth from it we can. So it was with the lead character in The Price of Sugar, a charismatic and inspiring priest, Father Christopher Hartley. Risking his life in a desperate struggle for the rights of some of the poorest people in the American Hemisphere, he led us into a world we could never have dreamed existed.

Filmmaker: How did you first hear about Father Christopher?

Haney: A partner, Dr. Kim Wilson, and I were bringing medical supplies to poor rural hospitals and clinics in the Dominican Republic. A local nun connected us to Father Christopher. He was building a hospital. When he took us to see the conditions of his parish and outlined his struggle to help, the notion of our film was born.

Filmmaker: Was this a dangerous documentary to make? Were you, like Father Christopher, subject to death threats and smear campaigns?

Haney: While it is certainly true that, like Father Christopher, both our film and I have been the subject of a vicious smear campaign, the real dangers experienced during the making of The Price of Sugar were borne by Father Christopher and his parishioners. My central concerns were for the Haitian laborers courageous enough to allow us to film them, despite their fears for the wrath of the plantation owners.

Filmmaker: How close do you allow yourself to get to your subjects? Does the necessary alliance between documentarian and their subject sometimes compromise the required objectivity?

Haney: The intense relationship between a documentary film maker and the subject of their work has to have some rules. Trust is central. So is objectivity — or the closest to it any human can really get. The Price of Sugar is my fifth documentary. I have found that one of the many wonderful advantages of having talented partners — and in Tim Disney, Peter Rhodes and Eric Grunebaum I have some of the best — is that by working collaboratively we can simultaneously remain close to our subjects and preserve the distance needed for objectivity.

Filmmaker: There are partially critical comments made about Father Christopher by an American member of the Peace Corps, accusing him of being arrogant and partly damaging to his cause. Did you feel that was a necessary perspective to have in the film in order to prevent it becoming a hagiographical portrait?

Haney: When your lead character is a long time acolyte of Mother Teresa, someone who has turned his back on great wealth to live and sacrifice for the poorest of the poor, the risks of hagiography are always present. Father Christopher, the central character in our film, is a principled and compassionate man but he and his methods of advocating for his parishioners have limitations. A number of characters in our film shared their views on those limitations – and I am glad that they were as frank as they were.

Filmmaker: How did Paul Newman get involved in the project? How early on was it, and what effect did it have on the film’s momentum?

Haney: I was lucky to be introduced to Paul Newman through a mutual friend. As he has demonstrated time and again, he has an extraordinary commitment to making a generous contribution to the world around him. He asked to take a look at my previous documentary, A Life Among Whales. He liked it and graciously offered to narrate The Price of Sugar. I couldn’t say thank you fast enough.

Filmmaker: How actively have the Vicini family (who own the sugar company featured in the film) obstructed the making and, more recently, screening of the film?

Haney: The Vicini family, wealthy Dominican plantation owners and their Washington lawyers are remarkably dedicated to stopping viewers from seeing The Price of Sugar, virtually showering the landscape with threats of lawsuits.

Filmmaker: What have you organized around the film’s release in order to raise the profile of this situation and create a positive change?

Haney: By working with a wide range of human rights groups, religious leaders, political leaders and unions, we hope the inspiration of Father Christopher’s example and the needs of his parishioners will draw the notice of groups in both the United States and abroad. If the desperate work conditions of the estimated 14 million people around the world compelled to ‘forced labor’ receive attention as a result of our film we will be deeply gratified.

Filmmaker: What has been your personal response to making this film?

Haney: The faith and spirit of the Haitians I met laboring on the Dominican sugar plantations inspired me. The “hidden costs” of American consumerism are no longer hidden for me. I understand viscerally now the costs of trying to make a difference, if your opponents are rich and callous.

Filmmaker: Do you think the current popularity of documentaries will last or that it is a fad?

Haney: I think the popularity of powerful documentaries will grow. I hope the number of venues for their screening, especially on television, will grow likewise.

Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?

Haney: Virtually every work day I have moments of sheer satisfaction and moments of frustration with the quality and effect of my work. On none of those days have I ever thought of film making as a job.

Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Haney: Keep your expenses low, your sense of humor strong and your love for your story paramount.

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