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Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006
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Robert J. Lewis
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The Edukators


sugar cane

reviewed by


I can’t decide which I prefer: documentaries that make me feel smart or those that make me feel stupid. The latter argue or advocate points of view about which I’m not very informed -- which usually turn into informative, engaging experiences. The former confirm already deeply aroused suspicions about a particular subject, and if they’re good they usually cement my preconceptions and open others in the process.

Brian McKenna’s Big Sugar (2005), first aired in two parts on CBC television, is nestled somewhere in between. I was impressed with both the research -- the hard facts of which confirmed many of my suspicions -- as well as the film’s presentation and form. The final product is as comprehensive a view on the corruption and exploitation within the sugar industry as one is likely to find.

workers at play in the fields of the LordBig Sugar offers a wealth of information (most of it disturbing) whose first effect is to empower its audiences. After the initial screening, I wanted to bring the industry to its knees, but practically speaking, what can the individual do against the big sugar barons and the legal and para-legal protections they enjoy? Unless, recalling a proverb that was drilled into me as a child, “knowing is half the battle,” and that individuals, united in their outrage, can become a force to be reckoned with, which is surely an outcome Brian McKenna would savour.

Big Sugar is not at all like Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 theatrical documentary-cautionary tale about the fast food industry, which has so far reached much larger audiences than McKenna’s little gem. But there are many reasons why Big Sugar matters and should be seen by even the least politically and socially engaged. McKenna’s film is both effective and affective because it presents a complete picture that begins with the history of the sugar cane industry from its unfortunate, yet localized ties to slavery until its most recent global developments, including its partnership with Kellogg’s Inc. (we contribute to your coffers, you increase the sugar content of your product) and role in the obesity epidemic. These dual focal points allow the film to be broken up into separate segments that in turn work particularly well for television audiences.

McKenna’s approach is about specifics: we trace the ancestry of an African-American woman and her familial ties to slavery; we encounter a number of dissidents, both black and white, and their inspired actions and failed attempts at overthrowing their oppressors, all the way to their fated deaths; and most disturbingly, we are left to observe the sheer arrogance, ignorance and menace of a slew of profiteers who have adjusted their lifestyles according to the uncertain status of their servants or, dare I say “slaves,” a term which, in the cane fields, is appropriate to this very day.

We learn about José 'Pepe' Fanjul Jr. and his brother Alfie, two of the world’s richest sugar barons who, on the backs of mostly illegal immigrants and indentured labourers, have turned vast tracts of the Florida everglades into a sugar windfall worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Their profits are guaranteed by tariff coddled, artificially high sugar prices that are passed on to the unwitting American consumer who pays, on average, three times more than his Canadian counterpart for the same product. Naturally, the Fanjul brothers contribute to both the Republican and Democratic parties, and for their undivided loyalty these spectacularly wealthy men receive $65 million per annum in government subsidies.

No wonder McKenna is angry, and if Big Sugar is anything but impartial, it’s because documentaries are expected to take sides. McKenna, who narrates throughout, wants to make a difference. What Big Sugar and other Canadian-made documentaries demonstrate is that Canada has a public sphere of contention, digression and protest that grants its film-makers an alternative voice, which, in this particular case, would risk being stifled if produced by our neighbours to the south.


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