Big Boys Gone Bananas!* documents the year-long battle between film director Fredrik Gertten and the crushing public relations and legal force of Dole Food Company.
“If you have mighty enemies, then you need many friends,” said Gertten when introduced to the audience. He founded and heads a four-person film production company in Malmö, Sweden. Dole oversees 36,000 full-time employees worldwide with $7 billion in annual revenue.
In May of 2009, a cease and desist letter from Dole’s lawyers arrived on Gertten’s desk, six weeks before Bananas!*, his previous film, was to premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Bananas!* follows 12 Nicaraguan plantation workers involved in a class action lawsuit against Dole for its use of a sterility-inducing pesticide. Dole’s lawyers threatened to sue if Gertten showed the film: it lies intentionally and with malice, they claimed, though they hadn’t seen more than a trailer.
Gertten premiered the film and Dole proved good on its threat. After a harrying year, with the solvency of his production company and his credibility as a filmmaker under question, Gertten emerges successful – finally, barely, and only partially.
The company’s swift and unmitigated attacks on Gertten illuminate nothing that we don’t already know, and a Swedish journalist covering Gertten’s story nicely summarizes the film’s 90 minutes: Big corporations “have impressive resources at their disposal to crush you.”
This simple fact is demonstrated clearly and repeatedly and Gertten’s victimhood is drawn to the border of self-indulgence. Through the last third of the film I began to wonder how many minutes remained. But, despite a sometimes lackluster narrative, at the heart of Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is a story both more urgent and less frequently told than David and Goliath.
“It seems the right to freedom of speech depends on the story you have to tell,” says Gertten as he and his team negotiate with the director of the L.A. Film Festival, who has threatened to pull Bananas!* under pressure from Dole.
The increasingly fragile position of free speech in the United States is a subject that Gertten explores both thoroughly and somewhat incredulously. Though Dole is not ultimately able to prevent the premiere of Bananas!*, they are able to control the story around its release, essentially buying a headline in the Los Angeles Times that discredits both Gertten and the lawyer for the Nicaraguan plaintiffs. Dole’s public relations firm, borrowing from Nietzsche, advertises that it is easier to deal with a bad conscience than a bad reputation.
Gertten’s attempts to shed light on his side of the story prove futile. After interviews, reporters would whisper rushed condolences about the tragedy of the situation, but this sympathy appeared nowhere in their stories. “It was scary,” Gertten said during a question and answer after Big Boys Gone Bananas!*. “I could feel this big power moving.”
Gertten’s fortune shifts on unlikely happenstance involving a Swedish blogger and a national fast-food burger chain, Max Burgers. When the blogger complains to the company about their use of Dole fruit cups and then publishes his exchange with the amenable CEO, a story on Gertten and his struggle suddenly appears in the business section of a national newspaper. “We were no longer in Arts and Culture,” he said. “And the business section is where the power is.”
Bananas!* began to play more broadly, and European consumers started pressuring grocery stores against the sale of Dole. In this way, Gertten was victorious. But his film would never have a chance at widespread distribution in the U.S., as no companies were willing to face the threat of lawsuit. In this way, Dole accomplished its goal.
A standing ovation filled the auditorium after the credits. Gertten waved from the stage and smiled at the crowd. He thanked the group for attendance and advertised DVDs for sale in the lobby. ”We can stay friends forever,” he said.
Dylan Walsh graduated from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2011 where he studied environmental communication. He is an Editor at The Solutions Journal and a freelance science/environment writer.