Title: Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Director: Fredrik Gertten
In 2009, Swedish documentary filmmaker Fredrik Gertten’s “Bananas!*” was just one of more than a dozen nonfiction competition entries in the Los Angeles Film Festival — the story of a (successful) lawsuit that a dozen Nicaraguan plantation workers had brought against the Dole Corporation, alleging sterility and other health problems brought about by continued and knowing exposure to illegal pesticides. But the movie itself became a story when, in the weeks leading up to its festival premiere, Dole started flexing its corporate might, and tossed out a steady stream of lawsuit threats left and right if the movie was shown in its present form — owing largely to an investigation of the lawyer working on behalf of the plaintiffs. The Los Angeles Film Festival backed down, screening the movie out of competition, at a separate venue, and under the legal protection of a nicely phrased statement of dissociation.
The Sundance Film Festival-minted “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*,” then (and yes, the asterix are part of the respective titles), is Gertten’s adjunct offering/follow-up, sort of akin to Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” or, more to the point, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s “Lost in La Mancha.” It’s a lifted-curtain story of what went on behind-the-scenes during the attempted production/mounting/release of another work of art. It’s also a pretty compelling story about freedom of speech, and how in a worldwide economy and digital age companies are even more apt to take aggressive, proactive and even punitive measures to squelch voices and stories — true or false not really mattering — that can negatively impact their bottom lines.
As a fruit company employing more than 75,000 workers in 90 countries, and doing more than $7 billion a year in business, Dole had (and still has) plenty of incentive to protect its brand. Their tack with respect to the actual charges in “Bananas!*” was to attack the agents and enablers of the story, and claim the plaintiffs were essentially recruited liars. Between the movie’s carefully curated Los Angeles screening (attended by both Gertten and lawyers and representatives from Dole, making for quite a surreal introduction, chronicled in this film) and its Swedish theatrical release, Dole would eventually follow through on their repeated threats, and sue Gertten and one of his producers for defamation, essentially arguing that they knew the allegations by Dole workers covered in their movie to be false. Keeping the cameras always on, Gertten would defend himself, eventually file a counter-suit against Dole in an effort to keep hopes of a Stateside theatrical distribution deal alive, and then find his cause taken up by an almost nationalist-activist fervor when Swedes finally determined Dole’s behavior to be outside the boundaries of corporate decency.
There are certainly macro-economic and political lessons here, and plenty of intrigue to boot. “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” is feverishly interesting for anyone with a curiosity about business and world events, and how the law can be bent to the advantage of the rich and powerful. Narratively, though, it’s a classic “David vs. Goliath” story. And it certainly favors those predisposed to be distrustful of corporate agendas — maybe a little too much. As sympathetic a figure as Gertten cuts, his follow-up doesn’t dig down deep into the substance of Dole’s claims against the Los Angeles-based lawyer who brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Nicaraguan workers, except to note he was eventually cleared of all charges by the California State Bar. A bit less preaching to the choir and a bit more clarification on this front would make “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” even more engaging and powerful. As is, it’s a cautionary tale of how freedom of speech must be allowed to grow and prosper alongside in a more interconnected world, but one with a few patches of haziness.
NOTE: “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Playhouse 7. For more information on the movie, visit www.BigBoysGoneBananas.com.
Written by: Brent Simon