If they gave an Oscar for the muckraking documentary that most riles the world's fat cats, turning them into red-faced, sputtering stuffed shirts, Amy Serrano's film on Big Sugar would surely win hands down. The exposé film Sugar Babies, which has been making the festival circuit for about a year but is having its first commercial screening this week at Fort Lauderdale's Cinema Paradiso, has sugar barons and their allies scurrying around the globe trying to stop people from seeing it.
So far, the barons — including Palm Beach County's famous Fanjul family — have had moderate success. A scheduled screening at this year's Miami International Film Festival was abruptly canceled, probably after pressure from the sugar industry. The ostensible reason for cancellation: The film had already been screened at Serrano's alma mater, Florida International University, a fact Serrano says she discussed ahead of time with the festival's organizers, who said "no problem." Then the Women's International Film Festival got a similar case of cold feet, the event's South Florida organizer telling Serrano that she feared for the future of the festival if they showed her film.
Who knows how many other invitations were not extended because of threats?
When Sugar Babies does get screened, it tends to bring out the wrathfulness in some people. The showing at FIU attracted a visibly agitated Manuel Almanzar, the Dominican Republic's Miami consul, who simmered through the film, then sought to take over a subsequent discussion and finally stormed out during a raucous question-and-answer session with Serrano.
A screening in Paris during a human rights conference attracted hired Spanish-speaking goons who joined a line of well-wishers who waited for just the right moment to curse Serrano to her face, warning her that they were going to "get" her. The same dudes showed up at a subsequent screening in Montreal. Serrano has encountered strangers watching her house in New Orleans as well as people with subpoenas rushing up to serve her.
Serrano, a short woman with long blond hair and a formal, teacherly way of expressing herself, says all the hullabaloo has complicated her life but has not deterred her. "I have learned to take precautions," she said the other day in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant.
Take it from Tailpipe, all of you Sugar Babies opponents — including corporate lawyers, lobbyists, sugar industrialists, and representatives of the Dominican government. Save your energy. Efforts to suppress the film are doomed. If history is any guide, trying to stamp out a movie or book just ensures its success.
Two weeks ago, the Delray Beach Film Festival selected Serrano's film as its best documentary.
The film grew out of a visit Serrano made to the Dominican Republic in 2005 with U.N. Ambassador for Human Rights Armando Valladares. Touring the southeastern cane fields and the bateyes — rural shantytowns, where Haitian workers are housed — Serrano and Valladares found entire communities that were close to malnutrition, widespread illnesses with little access to medical care, and downcast, unschooled children, many of them working in the field with their parents.
Serrano shows you photographs of children with distended stomachs, parents cooking leaves from trees into a thin gruel, and a "water plant" where animals and humans shared a trough.
"On day three," Serrano says, "I dropped my camera and picked up a child. I said I wanted to do what I can do to help here."
Back in the States, Serrano managed to scrounge together a budget of about $150,000 from foundation grants and donations. The film records her secret visits, along with a priest/activist and others, to interview batey residents. Not only were conditions appalling but the Haitian residents were virtual prisoners in the work camps because they lacked Dominican documents allowing them to travel.
Serrano says the lockdown was achieved with the complicity of the government, whose representatives not only recruited new Haitian workers and funneled them to the sugar plantations but kept them in line once they were settled.
Tailpipe wasn't able to reach representatives of the Fanjuls, who produce 10 million tons of sugar a year, both here and abroad, or of the other big sugar family, the Vicinis. The Fanjuls, who own a controlling interest in Domino Sugar through their holding company, Flo-Sun, boast that two out every three spoonfuls of sugar consumed in the United States are produced by them. Fanjul family representatives have responded in the past that the conditions shown in Serrano's film have since been improved.
Could be, acknowledges Serrano. "I couldn't tell you, because I've been declared persona non grata by the Dominican government," she says.
She adds: "God willing, there are improvements. But why do we have to rely on people speaking out, putting their lives at risk, before changes are made?"
Sugar Babies runs this week from Wednesday through Sunday at Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale.
Copping a Sappy Plea
Two months ago, Tailpipe told you about yacht hostess Julie Perry's unfortunate decision to celebrate New Year's Eve in a rickshaw on Fort Lauderdale Beach. The vehicle — actually a pedicab, powered by a guy on a bicycle — was struck by a vehicle on the Las Olas Bridge, violently dumping Perry and friend Suki Finnerty in the street. Vehicle and driver fled. No witnesses.
Last week, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission held a hearing on whether to allow Kevin Green and his Elite Bicycle company, owners of the pedicab in question, to stay in business. This surprised the hell out of Tailpipe. Even before the accident, Green had an apparently spotty record, including arrests for two assaults, one on a police officer. In addition, there was an alarming omission in Elite's city file. There was no record of the company's being insured for liability.
You mean this guy has been allowed to stay in business for almost five months since the accident? Ah, America, what a wonderful country.
The two accident victims showed up for the hearing. Finnerty, whose knee was injured, is OK now. But Perry's face is still swollen, hanging limp on one side, and she supports one arm in a sling. She wanted to know why she was getting no assistance in paying huge medical bills.
Green, a skinny, tanned man in a white T-shirt that read "Clean Air Taxi," said that he had paid for insurance but that it had turned out to be a worthless policy.
"I'm no insurance guy; I can't follow up on these things," Green told Tailpipe before the hearing.
"Kevin Green, or whatever he's going by these days... this man should never have been allowed to operate a pedicab," the diminutive Perry told the commission. "He was passed through even though the police said, 'Don't.' "
When she finished, there was no discussion for the City Commission. No questions. Kevin Green's permit: toast.
Afterward, Green was bewildered. He didn't know that Perry and Finnerty were going to be at City Hall, he said. He thought it was just about insurance (though, clearly, this hearing wouldn't have occurred without the accident).
Besides, Green said, he didn't even own the pedicab when it was struck. He showed Tailpipe a bill of sale. It was written in pen on notebook paper.
See, he said, it was sold.
The City Commission was not — though Green has a fall-back plan. He said he was going up to North Carolina to run a pedicab business for NASCAR fans. Those are some folks who know how to take their lumps.
Get Well Soon
The surf team from Jupiter High School is stoked about an upcoming trip to California to compete in the finals of a nationwide contest called the Red Bull Riders Cup. First, though, there are two obstacles to overcome: (1) getting the money to travel and (2) getting the team's star surfer back in shape following an unfortunate encounter with a dinner plate.
"It was just a fight with my brother," says Ryan Weiland, a 16-year-old sophomore, in a chill voice, explaining the incident that sidelined him.
No big deal, maybe, but Weiland's injury created a buzz at surf breaks throughout the county. It seems his older brother, Shawn, 21, got mad about "something stupid on his part, and he went crazy," Weiland explains. "A dinner plate went through my leg. I had to get 12 staples and 18 stitches." Since the cut was three inches deep, there's a chance he may need surgery.
A major bummer for the team. Weiland is one of four starters on the eight-man lineup. He won the MVP and the Most Radical Maneuver award during the April 17 regional championship that placed the team in the Red Bull finals. He's also ranked first in the Treasure Coast Eastern Surfing Association Junior Men's division, and he's sponsored by six companies.
Coach Bill Kovachik, who's also a ceramics teacher at the school, described the upcoming contest as a very big deal.
"This is first time in the ten years since I've been sponsoring the surf team that we're traveling to a national championship," he said. The competition began with 32 teams; the best eight made the finals, which begin June 13. Kovachik stressed that the team still needs to raise $4,000 toward its $12,000 budget. To that end, it's selling T-shirts and staging a bake sale at the local Wal-Mart on May 31.
Groundswell Surf Shop donated $600 in goods for the team and set up a collection jar in the shop. Store manager Jimmy West expected the other JHS riders to make a good showing even if Weiland's unable to compete.
"Every one of those kids has the potential to do well," West said.
Even if he can't surf, Weiland will still travel with the team — and stay in California, where he's slated to compete in the National Scholastic Surfing Association Championships two weeks later. With any luck, he'll be back in top form by then.
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