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Q&A With Filmmaker Amy Serrano

In a bad interview, a hundred questions may not be enough to elicit interesting information from a subject. But in a good interview, a mere handful of prompts can produce fascinating results, as the following communique with director Amy Serrano demonstrates.

Serrano, who's making two Denver-area appearances on March 6 (see this item for details), wrote via e-mail that she only had time to answer a few brief inquiries about her new documentary, The Sugar Babies: The Plight of the Children of Agricultural Workers in the Sugar Industry of the Dominican Republic. Upon receiving the subsequent queries, however, she went into detail about the process of making the film, which examines the startling mistreatment of Haitians smuggled into the Dominican Republic to harvest sugar cane.

Her in-depth, impassioned comments are below:

Westword (Michael Roberts): How did you learn about the plight of the enslaved workers that are the focus of your film?

Amy Serrano: I first learned of the issue from a news article in the Miami Herald entitled "Slaves in Paradise" written by journalist Gerardo Reyes. A friend of mine and former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Amb. Armando Valladares, saw the same article and we went to the Dominican Republic on an unofficial fact-finding mission. At the time, I had no plans to make the documentary, just a desire to help and the idea was that if what we read about was in fact true, I'd take some footage to support a written report that Armando would make to the U.N. However, when I saw what I saw, I could not sleep much and thus began the writing of a narrative and the intention to do what I could, which was to witness and capture images, and to allow the story to unfold and be told. Thus, that story is what appears in the film The Sugar Babies.

WW: How difficult was it to tell their story? Did representatives of the sugar industry do their best to undermine your efforts?

AS: Initially, I was compelled by the issues surrounding the lives of the children who from my perspective -- as well as those of IGO's and NGO's -- would be proscribed to a bitter life in the sugar-cane fields and would not be able to determine their own future. Yet, the deeper I explored their lives, the conditions that led to their families' arrival in the Dominican Republic, and the fact that without change, these children would become the future labor force of these sugar plantations, the deeper the implications.... Before I knew it, I was silently up against human traffickers, complicit government officials, and what I know now is a very powerful industry – sugar...

We kept a low profile during the making of the film and though we were sometimes accompanied by other friends supporting us and committed to change, our field crew consisted of mainly two: Bill Cruz, who aside from composing the haunting score, also recorded sound, and then me behind the camera. Mainly we all posed as missionaries and together with our field guide -- Father Christopher Hartley -- were able to gain access to a world that until now had been carefully hidden in paradise...

The complications and undermining came later, after the release of the film. It's true there are consequences for this, but despite untold risks, it's about improving the lives children. That's what's important and that's the focus here.

WW: For you, what was the most moving or memorable moment during the making of the film?

AS: Without a doubt, the moment and the reason that even without funding I knew I had to do something was because of what happened on the third day of the fact-finding mission. Up until that time, I'd been silently overwhelmed by images of a way of life that should have never existed but tragically still do. I tried to do what I had to do to capture these images without succumbing to my own responsive emotions, but on the third day we came upon this village in Batey Santa Lucia and there were all these children running around hungry and mostly naked... There was this one little boy who only wore a red shirt over his much distended torso; his nose was running, and he was obviously very, very sick. I know something inside me broke then, and I nearly dropped my camera because I knew I had to hold him close to me -- so I scooped him up and held him for a while and cried. I know that it is because of that little boy with the red shirt that I became a part of their world and would do what I had to for them. A thought that sometimes keeps me awake at night still is the near certainty that the little boy with the red shirt is no longer alive...

WW: Is there anything U.S. consumers can do to help bring this practice to an end? Do you hope your film is a first step toward this goal?

AS: 1. They can write letters to the government of the Dominican Republic, urging them to grant citizenship rights to Dominican-born children of Haitian ancestry who live in the Bateys

2. They can write letters to Congress people who support sugar subsidies in this country and urge that tax dollars be used more responsibly. (One of the companies in the film is a U.S. subsidiary of a company that receives price supports of 65 million U.S. dollars per year with 60 million imported from the D.R. as part of the import protection program.)

3. They can write these companies (Florida Crystals -- U.S., Grupo Vicini -- D.R) and tell them they've seen the film and urge them to pay their workers in a fashion that would allow them to lead dignified lives. These companies claim things are worse in Haiti, but in Haiti they are unemployed. They are overemployed in the Dominican Republic and can still barely feed their children one decent meal per day!

4. And if things don't change, I would urge U.S. consumers to buy ethical sugar... It will cost a little more, but it will not be forged through these conditions.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts