In fictional cinema, purposeful lying (from the opening sequence of Casablanca through netherworlds created solely to entertain those who are willing to suspend their disbelief) is a valued commodity. In documentary films, it is incumbent on producers and directors to reveal the truth in a fully balanced manner.
Global corporations know the value of both types of films, paying millions for product placement in long-form narratives but generally much less enthusiastic about being put under anyone’s lens in feature-length exposés. The old adage “there is no such thing as bad publicity” has no meaning to multi-billion-dollar conglomerates.
When Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten’s Bananas!* was accepted into competition at the 2009 L.A. Film Festival, no one knew until about a month before just what a difficult property this study of the harm caused by Dole Food Company’s pesticide practices in Nicaragua would become.
A perfect storm of (a) a court ruling (one of the film’s most vocal mouthpieces, lawyer Juan Domínguez was convicted of fraud only to be largely exonerated months later), screenplay-length, cease-and-desist threats from Dole using the Domínguez decision as the basis for describing the suddenly hot doc as a defaming, libelous piece of fraud, (b) an avalanche of lawsuits, attack Op-Ed pieces and “targeted” chatroom mischief trying to portray Gertten as a misguided liar and Dole as the champion of hardworking employees worldwide catches everyone by surprise. Stirring up the frenzied pot of willfull misrepresentation on behalf of Dole was John Procter, senior vice president and partner from the Washington, D.C. PR firm Gibraltar Associates.
Rather than buckle under the pressure (unlike the L.A. Film Festival whose presenting sponsor—the L.A. Times: a purported champion of free speech—was MIA as the film was dropped from competition, relocated to a far-from-the-action venue, described as a test case for honest filmmaking—“we don’t believe it’s true”—and preceded by a damning Dole disclaimer), Gertten did what he does best: use the brouhaha as the basis for another documentary.
The film’s David and Goliath tone in obvious favour of the former will delight liberals and disgust diehard conservatives who worship at the altar of global commerce (many of whom also combined their efforts to bring about the last great recession). Tellingly, once the story continues to fester and the Swedish media start to feel the far-reaching wrath of Dole, that country’s Parliament finally discovers common cause for Social Democrats and Conservatives. A special screening within Sweden’s hallowed halls of government prompts the tables to be turned as petitions are sent and countersuits launched (much of this would not have been possible had it not been for Gertten wisely purchasing an insurance policy to protect his rights for just such an attack on his project’s hopes for wide release and distribution—U.S. lawyer Lincoln Bandlow gamely taking the case).
Once the tide turns, it’s clear that champagne will flow at the WG Film’s Malmö production house, but the sad fact remains that most of the legal posturing and corporate desire to prevent a long-established brand from being tarnished by anyone, was done by those who had never seen the film in question. And where were the L.A. Film Festival programmers (and their uppers) to defend their expert-choice decision when things began getting uncomfortably hot in Dole’s kitchen of discontent. Selective defence of the First Amendment removes any future possibility of being a respected moral authority. Perhaps it’s time for a doc about the films that never found their way to any of the major festivals for reasons miles away from the challenging art.
Unfortunately, Gertten slipped a little bit off the high road by including a spurious, near-entrapment phone call with Procter during the closing credits, but Michael Moore would have approved most vigorously. JWR