Dole slips on Bananas!* peel in Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Is there still a place for a free press in what we used to call the First World? Now that some media outlets are owned by the same companies that make corn syrup and warplanes, the concept of news looks largely decorative—a clattering amalgam of gossip and advertising in which sex scandals replace policy discussion.
Consequently, the hard graft of investigative journalism has increasingly fallen to documentary filmmakers operating beyond the realm of normal media. The resulting films are therefore back in the sacred marketplace, where everything is supposed to happen, now that the words capitalism and democracy have become ickily interchangeable.
Swedish writer-director-producer Fredrik Gertten found out just how far corporations can reach when he made a fairly straightforward doc called Bananas!*. The 2009 film was primarily about a dozen Nicaraguan farmhands who banded together to pressure their bosses at a subsidiary of Dole Foods to stop using a dangerous pesticide. The workers prevailed, with the help of a possibly opportunistic lawyer.
End of story? Not quite. When Gertten was set to debut his little movie at that year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, he was slapped every which way but loose by Dole’s suddenly culture-conscious lawyers, and the fest organizers all but dropped the hot banana. His follow-up effort, Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, which opens here Friday (August 31), details subsequent attempts to simply exhibit a film that only a few thousand people would likely see, even without interference. Eventually, as the new movie details, the Big Boys simply walked away from the fight.
“Nothing more has happened,” explains Gertten, talking with weary satisfaction to the Straight via Skype, from Seoul, South Korea, where the film is getting a festival debut. “They are professionals at Dole. They came after me when that was their decision, and they dropped the matter when it became clear that their intimidation wouldn’t work. I have no reason to believe they will bother me again.”
Of course, it’s not exactly reassuring that one big outfit backed off when its methods proved too heavy-handed.
“This really speaks to what basic values are most important to society,” explains the filmmaker, who has some of the shoulder-shrugging demeanour of the Swedish journalist in the original Dragon Tattoo movies. “Obviously, they can go after anyone they don’t like.”
Gertten espies this casual brutality wherever he looks. Russia’s Pussy Riot show trial and the whistle-blowing cases of U.S. soldier Bradley Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speak to the media-industrial complex’s kill-the-messenger approach.
“This attempt to use ridicule, and then law, to stop someone from telling the truth, or even just a version of the truth, is extremely disheartening. What can be a more classic case of free speech than a punk band making noise in a church?.…Now, Assange might not be a perfect human being, but this isn’t really about his sex life, and everyone knows it. Perhaps the Swedish authorities are acting in good faith, and it’s just a coincidence that their actions serve another purpose.”
While one can advance the merits of the various arguments in both films, few would agree that the best approach is to stop the discussion entirely.
“We’ve seen the psyche of the corporation, and it’s often not such a beautiful one. I’m not saying that Dole is evil because they wanted to keep using a pesticide that was banned; it’s just that they wanted to keep the system going, to save money. That’s all. But more and more, they also think they are whole countries, sending their envoys to intimidate, say, the Swedish parliament or the U.S. Congress.”
The filmmaker’s Canadian producer on Bananas!*, Bart Simpson, also worked on The Corporation, a doc Gertten often refers to in describing the pathology he encountered in the last few years. The guys probably should have seen it coming.
“We were all caught up in our own dramas,” says Simpson, on the phone from his Vancouver home. “So we were really blind-sided when everybody came under attack from so many directions. I only got a nasty letter, but they decided to really go after Fredrik.”
The B.C. veteran, now planning to direct a film about modern Brazil, met Gertten at the 2004 edition of Toronto’s Hot Docs. His new Swedish pal later sent him some clippings about striking Nicaraguan workers, and they started filming in 2007.
The new movie “was largely done while we were on tour with the first one”, Simpson recalls. “We picked up another crew to shoot us when we were expecting to get served with papers at the L.A. festival, because we figured this was the best way to protect ourselves. I mean, documenting is what we do, right?”
The big surprise came in the form of betrayal by ostensible allies. “The most shocking thing was seeing mainstream media and then some of the film community turn against us. People were simply lifting talking points from Dole, without a lot of due diligence.…You can see the weight on him [Fredrik] in the film. There’s one moment where you can see him staring into the camera, and you can just feel the gravity of the situation.”
Simpson, who will attend the opening-night screening at the Vancity Theatre, says it’s been gratifying to watch everything lighten up a little. And through the intercession of pro-bono lawyers like Lincoln Bandlow, who appears prominently in the film, there is the beginning of a push-back.
“We’ve since been talking with Patricia Aufderheide, head of the Center for Social Media, in Washington, D.C., about creating a nonprofit group to help fight for freedom of speech. At least it would be harder to isolate filmmakers if a third party was sending these big companies some serious legal challenges.
“The fact that the film has done so well on the festival circuit feels like a vindication. Over time, the spotlight shifted away from the workers, who are why we made the first film to begin with. Now we’re getting that conversation going again.”
As a filmmaker—not primarily a journalist—the embattled Gertten is also concerned about creating work that entertains. Known to local audiences for his production work on popular docs like Belfast Girls and Burma VJ, the unflappably philosophical director is less interested in taking on Goliaths than in telling the stories of little people caught in big conflicts.
“A free media is supposed to take on the powerful,” asserts Gertten. “But when that doesn’t happen, we still must hold up a mirror to governments and corporations. I believe this has a positive aspect, because it can make them better.…Documentaries are too often reviewed for their content, not for how the story is told. I’ve shown this movie around the world, and many people view it as a kind of thriller.”
That doesn’t mean his next feature will be The Dole Ultimatum. As a change of pace, in fact, he recently shot an amusing short about the invention of the invisible bicycle helmet. You can bet he’ll be wearing one when he makes his next movie, whatever it is.