Monday Editor’s Pick: “Bananas!” (2009)

by on May 9, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


7:30 at Maysles Institute [Program & Tix]
 
Director Fredrik Gertten’s 2009 documentary Bananas! would for make for an interesting documentary subject itself.
 
Bananas! chronicles a lawsuit brought by personal injury lawyer Jose Dominguez on behalf of former Dole Foods employees who claimed to have been made sterile by Dole’s use of a banned pesticide on their Nicaraguan banana plantations. The lawsuit itself and its repercussions are a murky and highly contested affair: a series of multi-million-dollar rulings, higher-court appeals, subsequent reversals, counter-suits and counter counter-suits between Dole, Dominguez, his plaintiffs, and the allegedly “libelous” makers of Bananas! themselves.
 
Director Fredrik Gertten will present today’s screening, along with the composer Nathan Larson. It should make for a pretty interesting Q&A.

 
Sukhdev Sandhu for The Telegraph (April 2010):

In recent years, London-based film-distribution company Dogwoof has carved out an impressive reputation for itself as a purveyor of timely and incisive social-issues documentaries such as Dirty Oil, Food, Inc. and Burma VJ. Bananas!, directed by Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, follows personal injuries lawyer Jose Dominguez and his colleague Duane C Miller as they take on Dole Food, which, they claim, used a banned pesticide that led to generations of Nicaraguan banana workers to become sterile. […]

As this courtroom drama proceeds, Dole brings in big-shot lawyers who accuse workers of lying about their health. The denouement, far from the David-slaying-Goliath narrative that you might expect to be celebrated, is a messy affair. Dole filed – and later dropped – a defamation lawsuit against Gertten and turned his film into something of a cause célèbre in activist circles.

 
Basil Tsiokos at What (Not) to Doc (May 2011):

Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten’s exploration of the case of Nicaraguan banana plantation workers against Dole generated headlines before its scheduled world premiere in competition at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival when Dole threatened to sue both Gertten and the LAFF for slander. While the film screened, it was removed from competition, and Gertten went on to be sued individually. Ultimately, the case was dismissed, and Gertten was awarded legal fees of nearly $200,000 due to the frivolous nature of Dole’s complaint. In the meantime, Bananas! went on to screen at notable festivals around the world, including IDFA and Thessaloniki Documentary, and was eventually picked up for US release by Oscilloscope.
 
The film details alleged cases of sterility, cancer, and other medical conditions in plantation workers as the result of a pesticide employed by Dole despite their knowledge of its dangers. Adding to the controversial nature of the documentary, a central figure is the workers’ lawyer, Juan Dominguez, who brings suit against Dole in California court. Known as a personal injury lawyer, his nickname “Accidentes” underscores popular sentiment that he’s an ambulance chaser – an opinion which later took on added relevancy when Dominguez himself was found to be under contempt charges for allegedly defrauding the court by coaching his witnesses against Dole to lie (earlier this year he was exonerated).

 
Sam Bennett for the Los Angeles Business Journal (March 21, 2011):

Dole Food Co. finally closed the chapter this week on a notorious lawsuit that involved its Nicaraguan operations and dated back to the 1970s. The Los Angeles Superior Court vacated an earlier judgment in a lawsuit brought by the Nicaraguan plaintiffs…In Tellez vs. Dole Food Co., four of the 12 plaintiffs were awarded $1.58 million in October 2008. That was thrown out last summer after a Superior Court judge agreed with Dole that the judgment was the product of fraud “perpetuated against (Dole) by the plaintiffs’ lawyers and their agents,” the ruling said.
 
In the case, plaintiffs’ lawyer Juan Dominguez allegedly coached clients to lie about working on banana farms, forged work certificates to create the appearance that they had worked on Dole farms and falsified lab results to create an impression that the Nicaraguan clients were sterile.
 
In 2009, the Los Angeles Superior Court dismissed two similar lawsuits, finding that the claims “were built on someone’s imagination” and were “put together by mirrors.” The decision in the Tellez case “is the latest, and most high profile, in a string of similar rulings in cases that follow this same pattern of fraud,” said Dole spokesman Marty Ordman.

 

 
Rory Carroll for The Guardian (April 2010):

Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten…said the film was a balanced portrayal and that the US food giant had a case to answer.
 
“Dole has been very successful in selling itself as the victim. In the film Dominguez is portrayed as a very colourful personality, which he is. I make it clear he is not a classical human rights-type lawyer.”
[…]
He acknowledged Dominguez possibly lost control of some colleagues, and that fraud may have occurred, but said powerful corporations had reason to destroy him. “I think they used Juan Dominguez to show all the other plaintiffs’ lawyers: don’t do this.”

 
Matthew Lerner for View London (June 2009):

Gertten presents his case clearly and firmly, using archive footage and to-camera interviews with the banana workers themselves. The shocking truth, casually admitted in court by senior Dole executive Bob DeLorenzo, is that the chemical Nemagon (DBCP) was banned in the US and withdrawn by Dow Chemical, yet Dole continued to use it on their Nicaraguan banana plantations, even going so far as to demand that Dow provide them with more supplies.
 
The David vs Goliath court case is genuinely gripping and Dominguez and Miller emerge as genuine heroes…However, the film also subtly points out that Dominguez is not exactly a saint – he’s shown charging around LA in his expensive sports car and flaunting his obvious wealth in a way that’s uncomfortable to watch. Similarly, there are a few occasions in the film where some fairly big questions go frustratingly unanswered, such as why did Dominguez and Miller put some of their witnesses on the stand if they knew that they’d changed their testimonies?

 

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