During the Rencontres Internationales du documentaire de Montréal which just ended, I saw a number of really excellent documentaries. Over the next few weeks I’ll tell you about a couple of them, not just because of their qualities as films but because they are making a difference, having a real impact. To start with, here is a Swedish film which I already saw in Stockholm a few months ago, Bananas!*, by Fredrik Gertten.
It tells the outrageous story of the banana plantation workers in Nicaragua and Honduras who have been made sterile by exposure to the pesticide DBCP (which goes under several brand names including Nemagon) and the flamboyant L.A. lawuer Juan ‘Accidentes’ Dominguez who takes their defense. He does so without any funding, at his own expense, choosing a group of only 12 workers as a test case. The film has real suspense, following the ups and downs of the legal case. I was at the edge of my seat, dying to see how the law suit was going to end. Well shot, well edited, and with judicious use of archives and court room footage, this is a really important film.
The film has its suspense, and so did the release of the film. Dole, the company running the plantations, put enormous pressure on the filmmakers and the L.A. film festival where the film premiered last June. The company managed to have the film removed from competition, but didn’t manage to have the screenings canceled. It then sued the filmmakers, surely a grave public relations mistake. There was an uproar among documentary filmmakers, and the producers filed an anti-SLAPP motion in the U.S. (A SLAPP is a ‘strategic lawsuit against public participation’ intended not to right a wrong but to force the defendants to spend more time and money than they can afford….) What also made a difference was the reaction in Sweden, where the main medical journal (Läkartidningen) examined the health impacts of DBCP, the federation of Journalists and the Swedish Film Institute condemned the law suit as a threat to freedom of expression, the hamburger chain MAX and major supermarket chains like ICA put their relationship with Dole into question. All this pressure led to Dole withdrawing the law suit on Oct. I5th.
You can read a detailed chronology of all these developments on the Bananas!* web site, complete with the director’s twitter messages.
Thanks to Jessica Berglund for help with this post.