Thursday, March 15, 2012

Documentary Feature: Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

It was my birthday yesterday and, it being a Wednesday, I didn't exactly have any big plans set in stone until the weekend. Lucky for me, one of my colleagues invited me to the re-opening of the newly renovated Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.

The documentary that was scheduled to be screened was kept secret, the only clue being that it had premiered recently at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. Therefore, I wasn't able to properly prepare by watching Bananas!*, the 2009 documentary by Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, beforehand. The premise of the original doc: Lawyer Juan Dominguez represented 12 Nicaraguan banana plantation workers who took fruit titan Dole Food Company to court for their use of a banned pesticide the workers claimed caused sterility. Dole was subsequently found guilty in a Los Angeles courtroom.

In his 2011 follow-up, Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, Gertten chronicles his legal battles with Dole. The corporate giant used scare tactics and bullying for nearly a year to suppress the release of Gertten's film. Despite having never seen the doc, Dole claimed it was filled with lies and inaccurate information provided by the Nicaraguan workers. Dole proceeded to write letters to everyone from the L.A. Film Festival (who was set to premiere the documentary) to Swedish journalists covering the story. When Gertten refused to withdraw his film from the L.A. film fest, Dole started legal proceedings to sue the filmmaker and his producer, Margarete Jangard, for defamation. Shocked by their scare tactics, Gertten counter-sued, knowing full-well that his likelihood of success against the giant corporation was low. However, through sheer determination and an unwillingness to bend to pressure (and, with a little help from Swedish MP's), Gertten was awarded $200,000 from Dole after the company finally withdrew its lawsuit in late 2009. It was a massive victory for a small filmmaker and, more importantly, a victory for freedom of speech.

What makes the doc so fascinating is how far Dole was willing to go to censor the film -- at one point they were willing to let the film screen if certain scenes were edited out. It's no surprise that Dole was upset by the film -- anyone willing to tackle such a big court case that involves a corporate titan has to be somewhat prepared for backlash. However, it's the incessant bullying, verging on taunting at times, that is truly shocking. Witnessing Dole trying to control free speech is unsettling, to say the least. Therefore, the outcome reached in Gertten's favour is all the more satisfying. 

After the screening, the audience was treated to a Q&A session with the genial Swedish director via a Skype transmission on the big screen. It was such a treat to listen to him speak about his work.

If you get the chance to watch this riveting documentary, please do! It unfolds like a thriller and it's an absolute must-see, especially for up-and-coming documentary filmmakers looking to tackle big subjects involving giant corporate powers.

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