Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (Gertten, 2012)
Warning: This review may contain what some readers would consider implied spoilers. I have not discussed specifics of how the film’s central conflict is resolved, though, I would argue, the film’s very existence is an implied spoiler of a sort. That being said, I do encourage readers who are sensitive to spoilers to watch the film first before reading too many reviews of it. When I asked the director, Fredrik Gertten, whether certain details about the eventual resolution of the court case chronicled in the original Bananas!* movie would be considered spoilers for a review of this film, he said,
If I wanted to make a film on the ongoing banana trials in Los Angeles I would have focused on Dole’s relation to Juan Dominguez and other US lawyers representing pleintiffs in Nicaragua. There’s certainly a story to tell!
But with this BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* I wanted to stay out of the banana trial cases and I wanted to focus on freedom of speech and the media spin Dole put out there to change the conversation off of them and on to somewhere/someone else.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, aside from having the distinction of the hardest title in awhile to spell correctly, is the kind of film of which every documentary film festival needs at least one. It’s not exactly a feel good story, but it is a feel better story.
In 2008, Fredrik Gertten tried to release a modest documentary, Bananas!*, chronicling a lawsuit in Nicaragua where workers sued Dole claiming a pesticide used by the industry giant made them sterile. Dole lost the initial case, but raised questions about one of the lawyers involved and, subsequently, began a high-stakes, high-pressure, campaign to suppress Gertten’s film. Lawsuits were threatened against the Los Angeles Film Festival (which eventually screened the film only after announcing a disclaimer of its truth and accuracy) as well as Gertten. For a moment, Dole apparently succeeded in making Bananas!* like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—threatening to destroy anyone who dared to look at it.
That metaphor turns out to be doubly wrong. Bananas!*, unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, may not have been quite so wicked as it was made out. And while multinationals have lawyers and money and time in fearful quantities, their power to punish anyone who does not obey their instructions may yet fall short of God’s. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is the story of how and why Gertten persevered. At times angry, it is surprisingly devoid of bitterness. At times fearful, it is surprisingly full of hope.
There are two aspects of the film that I found especially encouraging. At one point, when so many individuals and companies are scared to screen the film, members of Parliament in Gertten’s native Sweden unite to show the film in Parliament. Think Democrats and Republicans in America would agree to show a film in a session of Congress as a means of affirming that freedom of speech is important to all Americans no matter how much those with money are willing to pay to squelch it? In Sweden, the report that helps the tide begin to turn is made not by a well staffed magazine or national newspaper but by an independent blogger. When asked why he did not fear reprisals from Dole, the man simply said that he didn’t have any ad revenue, hence there were no sponsors to scare away. Sometimes the most powerful adversaries are not those who have amassed the most power but those with nothing to lose.
That’s not to say that there aren’t parts of the Big Boys that are genuinely troubling and downright scary. As with last year’s Hot Coffee, the film explores the interrelationship between court cases and media campaigns and the cynical way in which those with sufficient capital can prolong legal cases in a strategic attempt to win by attrition what they cannot on legal merits. It also shows how in a global economy, the reach of money still exceeds that of law. Money’s influence does not stop at borders and is the more difficult to combat the more we assume—often wrongly—that journalists and politicians have done the hard work of sorting out truth from obvious falsehood and are willing and able to label each as such.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is one of those “what would I do?” documentaries. Normally one weakness of that subgenre is that it is too easy for the viewer to imagine he or she would do the “right” thing when the question is only hypothetical and when he or she has the benefit of hindsight. One of the film’s real strengths is that it is able to convey the emotional truth of Gertten’s experience to such a degree that there may be some viewers who, even from the comfort of their chairs, won’t be sure if they could have toughed it out.