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.