What is a big corporation capable of doing in order to protect its brand?
Recently, Swedish documentary filmmaker Fredrik Gertten experienced this personally. His previous film BANANAS!* recounts the lawsuit that 12 Nicaraguan plantation workers successfully brought against the fruit giant Dole Food Company.
That film was selected for competition by the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. Nothing wrong so far, right?
But then just before leaving Sweden to attend the Los Angeles world premiere of his film, Gertten gets a strange message: the festival has decided to remove BANANAS!* from competition.
Then, a scathing, controversial and misinformed article appears on the cover of the Los Angeles Business Journal about the film a week before the premiere. And subsequently, Gertten receives a letter from Dole’s attorneys threatening legal action if the film is shown at this festival and to cease and desist.
What follows is an unparalleled story that Gertten captured on film. He filmed this entire process of corporate bullying and media spin – from DOLE attacking the producers with a defamation lawsuit, utilizing scare tactics, to media-control and PR-spin. BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* can be seen as a thriller and a cautionary tale. But, mostly this is a personal story
about what happened to Gertten, as a documentary filmmaker and to his company and how the livelihood of documentary filmmakers can be easily put into jeopardy.
This powerful film reveals precisely how a multinational will stop at nothing to get its way – freedom of speech is at stake. As Dole’s public relations company puts it, “It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than a bad reputation”.
BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* was a film I needed to make. Being sued by a multi-national corporate giant like Dole Foods is no PR-stunt and is no fun. But it is interesting! You learn a lot, and if you survive you certainly have a story to tell.
I have worked as a journalist and filmmaker for 25 years now. And the experience of being the subject of an attack from a major corporation such as this, gave me a deeper understanding of society and media.
In BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* I am trying to understand how Dole Foods did what they did. The questions kept coming: Why were they so successful in the US in controlling the story in the media and blocking the film for almost two years?
In addition, the film is also about corporate scare tactics and instilling fear in the little guys. How do people react when they can feel the raw forces of money and power coming against a filmmaker? In my situation, some people moved away for us and left us alone to fight this battle. Perhaps they believed Dole had a point, or maybe it was just a battle they could not afford to take on. But we were fortunate that there were those who showed passion and solidarity with us. For example, each of the European
broadcasters involved in showing BANANAS!* decided to broadcast the film regardless of the fact that we had a lawsuit pending in the US. That was a good feeling. And, in Sweden consumers and activists pushed the supermarkets to boycott Dole Foods. The boycott actually did not happen. But, instead the supermarkets demanded Dole to withdraw the lawsuit.
Today, independent documentary films are more important than ever. These films are the last bastions of truth telling. Traditional media outlets have less money for investigative reporting and many are owned by corporate entities that have an influence on the news and its presentation and distribution. All of which means that documentary filmmakers have an even harder job to seek the truth and will continue to meet more opposition, as we continue to tell these stories of corporations doing bad things.
There is no doubt that what we experienced in making BANANAS!* and what is documented in this current film BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* will not stop.
I hope that BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* will open up a debate on what and how the powerful corporations do and are able to do by way of controlling the media and instilling fear amongst the little people. Going through this experience always made me wonder: How free is freedom of speech and how free is freedom of press.
We need to keep making our films and telling these stories.
Title: Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Release year: 2011
Length: 90 min
Director: Fredrik Gertten
Producer: Margarete Jangård
Editors: Jesper Osmund, Benjamin Binderup
Narrative Consultant: Niels Pagh Andersen
Executive Producer: Fredrik Gertten
In co-production with: Svt, Hjalmar Palmgren, Film i Skåne, Joakim Strand
In Association with: Yle, Jenny Westergård, Vpro, Nathalie Windhorst, Against Gravity, Artur Liebhart
With the support from: The Swedish Film Institute
Film commissioner: Cecilia Lidin & Suzanne Glansborg
Developed with the support from: the media programme of the European Union.
IDFA (World Premiere), Sundance Film Festival, Hot Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Jerusalem International Film Festival, DocsBarcelona, Vancouver International Film Festival, Milan International Film Festival, CPH:DOX, Sarasota Film Festival and many more!