Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Price of Sugar, and Father Christopher Hartley


Another new documentary that can make American and western consumers squeamish about their karma is “The Price of Sugar” (2007, Mitropoulos Films / Uncommon Productions, directed by Bill Haney, mostly digital video, 1.85 to 1 and 1.33 to 1 in spots). Paul Newman (“Hud”) narrates. The films documents the importation of Haitian workers onto sugar cane plantations in the Dominican Republic as (essentially) slaves by the five large sugar companies. The history is significant: the Dominican Republic broke free from Haiti, and views Haiti as an “enemy”; Haiti is actually poorer. It’s interesting that, according to the film, the US had trade agreements with the Dominican Republic that result in US consumers actually paying more for sugar. The sugar barons seem to pocket the rest. Sugar cane may come into more demand as the worldwide demand for ethanol fuel increases (already big business in Brazil).

But the hero of the film is Father Christopher Hartley, who decided as a teenager in Britain (or Spain) to dedicate himself to God and become a priest. He spent some youthful years working with Mother Theresa in India, and the film shows some harrowing stills of the poverty in India. (A related film is the Italian account “Madre Theresa” (2003, Lux, dir. Fabrizio Costa). Hartley goes to bat for the Haitian workers, and eventually defends their right not only to be there but also to organize. He fends off many threats from the sugar companies and the Dominican government, both of which try to get him expelled.

At least from the material in the film, Father Hartley does seem to follow the moral teachings of the Church. He gives up the competitive world and individualized self-expression and takes a vow of poverty, and as far as known, remains abstinent. He remains indirectly supportive of the families of others and of the emotional empathy that families need and does not set himself up as competing with it. He seems his moral duties as collective in nature. He takes charge and assumes “power” only in the context of having shared the empathy and sacrifice himself first, but when he does, he is vigorous about his beliefs. For example, he fights for the rights of workers to organize. But he does so not as a pamphleteer or legal activist, but as someone who responds to others directly, with the appropriate amount of intimacy. Everything, while coming out of a heavily socialized, moral universe, responds to real needs, and that seems to be his own answer to the usual concern that Catholic authoritarianism invites corruption (and, of course, in many other parts of history, with the simony, sale of indulgences, and scandals, it has; but not here). Has he exhibited moral utopia, the kind that can generate self-righteousness? One could say that, in the teachings of the Church, freedom from sin only exists when one turns oneself over to God completely and lives only to serve others in a concrete sense. (In that sense, even procreative heterosexual marriage, for "normal" people, serves God and others through its ritualized and sacramental emotional risk, progression, and finality of commitment.) Well, sometimes you need an ego, even some self-indulgence, in order to advance things for others. Leonardo Da Vinci knew that. So did Father Mycal Judge, the so-called "Saint of 9/11" (Red Envelope Films, dir. Glenn Holsten, 2006).

Another related film is Jonathan Demme’s "The Agronomist" (2004, ThinkFilm), about Haitian radio personality and scientist Jean Dominique, who was assassinated in Haiti in April 2000.

Another comparison is "Life and Debt" (2001, New Yorker Films, dir. Stephanie Black), about the worker conditions in Jamaica under globalization.

One other thing about Father Hartley's activism here strikes me. Because he was helping specific people, his political activism was necessarily "partisan" (one-sided). As a moral matter, that's dicey with me; one wants to delve into all sides of an issue (most are not as one-sided as this one) and that's hard if you have to help specific people. Yet, intellectual honesty is what I was taught in my own academic upbringing.

No comments: