The documentary Bananas!* was to have its world premiere in competition at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. It was a prestigious launch venue for the filmmakers, but they were more concerned about exposing the treatment of Nicaraguan banana workers who had sued the multinational fruit giant Dole Food Company over health effects of pesticide use.
Days after launching a website for the film and announcing the premiere, director Fredrik Gertten received a thick package from lawyers representing Dole. It contained a cease-and-desist order to stop exhibiting the film, or the filmmakers would be sued. The company's law firm also sent the package – including some 200 pages of supporting documentation – to the festival's sponsors. Nobody at Dole had yet seen the film, but the documents stated that it contained "glaringly false defamatory statements."
The intimidation worked: The festival, concerned about its own liability, caved. It pulled the film from competition, moved the screening to a remote location, and prepared what can only be described as an insulting disclaimer, noting that "serious questions have been raised about its credibility" – to be read ahead of the screening.
"I actually felt completely ashamed for the entire Los Angeles movie industry and the festival," says Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, in Gertten's subsequent documentary, Big Boys Gone Bananas!* "It was beyond belief to think that that could be done to a participant in a film festival."
Gertten, his four-person film company based in Malmo, Sweden, and his industry colleagues – including the film's Canadian co-producer Bart Simpson – found themselves up against a powerful, well-resourced and motivated Goliath, desperate to keep Bananas!* out of theatres and protect Dole's reputation.
"It was very stressful," says Simpson, who met Gertten at Hot Docs in Toronto in 2004. "It was very difficult."
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, which opens Friday in Vancouver, relies extensively on footage Gertten and his colleagues shot from the very beginning of the legal battle (they had received an e-mail telling them the cease-and-desist letter was coming, so they had the camera rolling when it arrived) in an effort to document the struggle as part of their defence.
If Bananas!* was a story about workers' rights, Big Boys is a film about freedom of speech and a cautionary tale about media coverage that really is a must-see for every journalist. Many news outlets ran with the Dole version of the story, which cast aspersions on the lawyer leading the banana workers' suit. The Los Angeles Business Journal, for example, used a front-page headline that read: "The Big Slip-Up." In Canada, a CTV news anchor engages in lighthearted banter about Gertten's fight to screen the film. "Of course," she quips, "he's an artiste."
"The most frustrating thing over and over and over again was the view of me from people who hadn't seen the film," Gertten, a former journalist himself, said this week in an interview from Malmo. "The spin that Dole created was so well done: If there's smoke, there must be fire. It's a very old-school trick to play, but it works and it works quite well with journalists."
After Los Angeles, Dole filed a lawsuit against Gertten and his company (Simpson was not named in the suit). Gertten eventually counter-sued.
The film does not deal overtly with the personal impact of the months-long fight, but you can see it on the filmmakers' faces as they engage in an onslaught of legal and PR battles. "My mother called, crying, and asked me to give up. My kids were also stressed about it," says Gertten. "But this is not a film about me. Maybe not even about Dole. It's a bigger story."
Gertten's fortunes begin to turn after a noted Swedish blogger refuses the Dole fruit salad he's offered at a burger chain – and then blogs about it. While North American journalists were generally dismissive of Gertten and his film, in Sweden the support builds, reaching all the way to parliament, where MPs attend a screening of the film.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* – made for a fraction of the budget of Bananas!* – premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam last year, and had its North American premiere this year at Sundance. Gertten has since been touring the world with the film, which details the legal outcome for Bananas!* and its makers, always ensuring the original issue about the treatment of banana workers remains in the conversation.
"The fact that this film has gotten such a good run is satisfying not only for the original Bananas!* film, but just for free speech, period," says Simpson. "To see people really embrace it has been very satisfying."
And this time, Gertten says, they haven't heard from Dole.
Bart Simpson will participate in a Q&A after screenings Friday, Saturday and Thursday.