We have all experienced a time when we discover someone has said something disparaging about us. There is nothing we can do about it, the words have been uttered and the supposed damage has been done. Wouldn’t it be great if you could pre-empt those unfavourable comments? Well, if you’re Dole Food Company that is exactly what you would try to do. Of course in this case, Dole had no idea what Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten was actually saying about the company but they still thought it would be best to legally prevent his film, Bananas!*, from being shown. The subject of that 2009 film was that Dole had knowingly used a banned pesticide, DBPC, on their banana plantations in Nicaragua which caused sterility and other serious health problems for their workers. The pesticide, banned since the late 1970s, was still used on Dole plantations outside the United States until the early 1980s. Bananas!* documents the attempts of 12 Nicaraguan workers as they sue the Dole Food Company for damages. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* documents Gertten’s struggle to have his film released and more importantly, to maintain his right to freedom of speech.
Just weeks before the film was to compete at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Dole served Gertten and his associates, along with pretty much anyone else who was involved in the film (including Film Festival sponsors), with a cease and desist order claiming that Bananas!* was built entirely on fabrications and lies and was creating an unfair depiction of the food company. The only problem with that statement is that no one at Dole ever saw the film. Not one. So how could they be sure it was “demonizing” the food company? After Bananas!* is taken out of competition at the LA Film Festival and moved to a new, less accessible, screening area, Gertten is informed that before the film is shown it will have a disclaimer read before it stating that it depicts inaccuracies and is essentially an unfair portrayal of the Dole Food Company. It is abundantly clear that the Film Festival promoters are more than uncomfortable with being in the middle of a potential lawsuit – they are terrified. The film is screened, no one gets sued, everyone goes home and Gertten starts to think that the worst is over. Wrong. A month after the LA screening, Dole officially sues the Swedish filmmaker.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* shows the viewers what much like the Nicaraguan workers in Gertten’s previous film, Gertten himself is now the underdog facing a battle of enormous proportions against a multinational company that has nothing but time and money at its disposal. We witness the filmmaker’s struggle to maintain composure and optimism in a situation that is being controlled by way of dirty tactics and aggressive actions. Finally, an event involving a local internet blogger and a Swedish food chain helps alter the dynamics and path of the lawsuit which eventually enables Gertten to find some much needed support from numerous outlets, most notably from the Swedish government who want to protect his fundamental right to freedom of speech.
The most interesting part of this film is how Gertten and his production partners are put under a microscope and demonized by Dole. This international company goes to extreme lengths to silence a film, its filmmakers, the Nicaraguan complainants, and anyone else involved and seemingly expects to come out the other end of it looking like victim. Had they just let the film compete at the LA Film Festival I sincerely doubt this much chaos and media attention would have occurred. What offends me the most about their lawsuit is that Dole Food Company essentially implies that viewers of Bananas!* cannot think for themselves and come to their own conclusions regarding the validity of the claims made by the Nicaraguan complainants. That is, they are so desperate for you to believe their side of the story that they are unwilling to let you hear any other potential side which begs the question: Why? That in itself is far more damaging to Dole than anything that may have been suggest by Fredrik Gertten’s documentary.
Follow up: After the film, co-producer Bart Simpson engaged in a short Q & A with the Big Boys Gone Bananas!* audience members at Vancity Theatre. He mentioned that the main lawyer representing Gertten, Lincoln Bandlow, dedicated much of his time and resources to the lengthy court battle pro bono and that of the 12 Nicaraguan complainants, 6 have since passed away.
Big Boys gone Bananas* is showing at Vancity Theatre from Sept 1st – 6th 2012.