Sweet Truth

A filmmaker's exposé peeves the sugar powers.


Sweet Truth

A filmmaker's exposé peeves the sugar powers.

Scenes from a shantytown: Amy Serrano's Sugar Babies.
Scenes from a shantytown: Amy Serrano's Sugar Babies.

By Edmund Newton

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 about Big Sugar would surely win hands down. The exposé film Sugar Babies, which won best documentary two weeks ago at the Delray Beach Film Festival and is having its first commercial screening this week in Fort Lauderdale, 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: The film had already been screened at Serrano's alma mater, Florida International University, a fact that 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 supposedly told Serrano that she feared for the future of the festival if they showed the film).

Who knows how many other invitations were not extended because of threats?

When Sugar Babies does get screened, it brings 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 Q&A 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 says she has encountered strangers watching her house in New Orleans, as well as people with subpeonas 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.

The film grew out of a visit Serrano made to the Dominican Republic in 2005 with UN Ambassador for Human Rights Armando Valladares. Touring the southeastern cane fields and the bateys — 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 fields with their parents.

Back in the States, Serrano scrounged together $150,000 from foundation grants and donations to bankroll the film. It records her secret visits, along with a priest-activist and others, to interview batey residents. Not only were conditions appalling, but also 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 also kept them in line once they were settled.

Riptide wasn't able to reach representatives of the Fanjuls, who produce 10 million tons of sugar a year here and abroad, or of the Big Sugar family the Vicinis. The Fanjuls, who own a controlling interest in Domino Sugar, boast they produce two of every three spoonfuls of sugar consumed in the United States. Fanjul family representatives have responded in the past that the conditions shown in Serrano's film have since improved.

Perhaps that's true, acknowledges Serrano. "I couldn't tell you, because I've been declared persona non grata by the Dominican government," she says. "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.


The Bonarian Candidate

Obama, McCain ... Imperato?

By Alexander Zaitchik

The Libertarian Party has never suffered a shortage of eccentrics. But even among the colorful cast of 14 presidential candidates competing at this past weekend's Libertarian nominating convention in Denver, Daniel Imperato, the only candidate from Florida, stands out.

"I'm the only one here who is a Papal Knight," says Imperato, a Boston native who has lived in West Palm Beach for 30 years. "I'm also a Knight of Malta and a Grand Prior of the Orden Bonaria."

The last refers to an obscure ancient order based in Syria. Or something. The 51-year-old former Republican preferred not to discuss the details of the title — also known as Grandmaster — or its powers, but he believes it bestows upon him a unique qualification for the office of president of the United States.

"I have run a successful [consulting] business and traveled the world at the highest levels," he says. "If the major media would give me a hearing, I am sure the country would embrace me like nobody's business." Imperato's platform includes funding Social Security through a tax-deductible charity and taxing foreign tourists and exchange students entering the United States.

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