Cinema Politica went ahead with its screening of Bill Haney’s Academy Award-shortlisted documentary The Price of Sugar on Feb. 25, despite that the fact that the doc – about the plight of Haitian workers harvesting sugarcane under gruelling conditions on armed-guard plantations in the Dominican Republic – was causing quite the stir, and none of it sweet.
Just prior to the screening, the Vicini family, the Italian owners of the Dominican Republic sugar company depicted in the film, sent Cinema Politica and Concordia University legal documents outlining a "cease and desist" request to the film’s director and producer.
"They claim the film incorrectly represents the family as guilty of crimes ranging from murder to human trafficking," says Ezra Winton, programming co-ordinator of Cinema Politica. "They also sent similar documents to colleges and universities all across the U.S."
Ultimately, the requests and legalities will fall to the film’s producers at Uncommon Productions and distributor Mongrel Media, but Winton argues that heavy-hitting docs are in the hot seat lately, especially if they deal with difficult issues and/or implicate corporations.
"This situation is interesting because there has been a lot of legal, copyright and representation paranoia around docs lately," Winton argues. "Doc filmmakers are increasingly worried about how to represent reality if they have to deal with issues of representation and copyright over material like songs and logos. It’s getting harder to make docs, yet they are more popular than ever." He cites Hubert Sauper’s award-winning Darwin’s Nightmare as another film currently embroiled in legal headaches.
Winton also points out that the film’s producers offered the Vicini family the opportunity to be represented in the film, but they refused. "This looks to be indicative of the way this company does things," Winton adds. He thinks that, ultimately, the controversy surrounding the film will only increase the public’s demand to see the film.
The Price of Sugar tells the story of a fiery Spanish priest who risks his life to confront the modern-day slave situation of sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic. Narrated by Paul Newman, the film goes behind the story of sugar production to raise key issues around the human cost of the food we consume.