Cinema with Gravitas

Bill Haney’s films train a lens on injustice.

Scenes from <i>The Price of Sugar:</i> armed guards on horseback often patrol workers in shantytowns
Father Christopher Hartley with a Haitian plantation worker
Local activists speak out against the mountaintop-removal of coal in Haney's film <i>The Last Mountain.</i>
Lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. ’76 adds his voice to those speaking out against the mountaintop-removal of coal in Haney's film <i>The Last Mountain.</i>

It was not much of a house at all: just a simple shack, with a dirt floor and ramshackle walls. But its owner, a Haitian sugarcane worker in the Dominican Republic, graciously let in the strangers who’d knocked at his door, offering them respite from the broiling summer sun.

Little did he know what would ensue. The visitors were documentary filmmakers who were interviewing workers lured into a form of indentured servitude on sugar plantations. The Haitian told them his story, and the next day, with the camera crew gone, the plantation owner ordered his shack demolished. “He had the poorest possible house—it was just tiny pieces of corrugated metal,” says the film’s director, Bill Haney ’84. “You had the feeling that tension was in the air, and I feared for what would happen to the people around me.”

Such is the weight of Haney’s gripping 2007 documentary The Price of Sugar. Narrated by Paul Newman, the film—which Haney wrote, produced, and directed—was short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It is now available through Netflix and on DVD. The movie follows a gutsy British-Spanish priest, Father Christopher Hartley, who was trying to open a hospital for the poor in the Dominican Republic when he met Haney, who was there to deliver medical supplies to local hospitals on behalf of a charity he’d established, World Connect. Riding through workers’ shantytowns that were patrolled by guards on horseback, armed with machetes, the filmmaker followed Hartley as he tried to improve conditions for the Haitian workers in the face of death threats from powerful plantation owners. “He was, in a way, an ordinary man,” Haney says, “who found within himself the ability to do something extraordinary because his principles required him to.”

Something similar might be said of Haney. His 12 documentary films have a common thread: dealing with social injustice.  For PBS, he’s produced The Road to Reconciliation (2002), on Northern Ireland’s troubles and quest for peace, and Gift of the Game (2002), exploring U.S.-Cuban relations through the lens of U.S. baseball players seeking members of a Cuban “little league” team that Ernest Hemingway founded in 1940s Havana. A Life Among Whales (2005) examines one man’s lifelong passion for the wild. Racing Against the Clock (2004) explores the world of women in their fifties through eighties who compete in state and national track-and-field competitions. American Violet (2008) is based on the story of Regina Kelly, a victim of Texas police drug-enforcement tactics.

The entrepreneurial Haney, who also started an eco-housing business, Blu Homes, that sells prefabricated, affordable “green” houses, began filmmaking at 35, when a childhood neighbor, a prominent topiary gardener, became a subject in the award-winning 1997 Errol Morris documentary, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Haney and Morris “became friends, and I played a small part helping him get it [the film] done,” he explains.

Haney says he makes films to tell stories that move people, and although he does not begin his process by looking for stories of a particular flavor, he does find inspiration in tales of ordinary folks who rise to the occasion when needed. Tim Disney ’83, of the moviemaking family, has been Haney’s partner (as co-writer or producer) on virtually all his films, and Haney credits Disney’s “talent, insight, and eye refined by many years of filmmaking experience” for much of their success.

“My philosophy is to focus on the story, first and foremost, and the characters who propel it,” he says. “Everything else is in service to bringing the characters and their story to life in a genuine, unaffected way.”

The Last Mountain (2011), for example, narrates the fight for the last great mountain in central Appalachia: mining companies who want to blow it up for the coal inside versus locals who want to stop them and build a wind farm instead. Implicitly, it explores how democracy works—or doesn’t—at a community level, and how money and power can corrupt bureaucracy. Sundance made it an official selection in 2011. “By the time I was done, I saw the coal industry as having its dark hands on the throat of the American public,” Haney says. “There are two simple—not easy—ways to stop climate change, and one of them is to stop mining coal. ” (In what is a continuing struggle, a federal appeals court in July upheld an Environmental Protection Agency effort to crack down on so-called mountaintop-removal mining.)

Haney’s current project, now in post-production, concerns eating habits in the United States—specifically how Americans obtain and think about food. Twenty-five years ago, he points out, it was illegal for California restaurants to buy produce from a farm stand: “If you were a local restaurant, you could not buy apples from the local orchard and put them in your food.” The film, he says, “is about the shift in the United States from a time when the only restaurants in certain towns were a misbegotten Chinese place of very low quality and an Italian-American one that covers stuff with red sauce—using only ingredients from the big food processors—to the organic, local, sustainable, farm-to-table movement we have today.”

Read more articles by Laura Levis

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