Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

A David vs Goliath true story that ends with the good guys winning the day, Big Boys Go Bananas nevertheless leaves you feeling that most of the time the good guys are not so lucky or tenacious in today's corporate dominated media environment. The David here in this documentary is contemporary Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and his team, who in 2009 tuned their cameras on themselves to track the exhausting legal battle that suddenly erupted around them when they crossed swords with a powerful corporation.

In 2009 Gertten completed a documentary - Bananas! - on a successful action for negligence brought in an LA court by Nicaraguan plantation workers against the huge international corporation Dole Food Company - one of those food giants whose products you have probably been unwrapping, eating or putting in the fridge all your life without ever realising it. On the eve of the documentary's world premiere at the 2009 Los Angeles film festival, Gertten and the festival authorities were threatened with libel actions. Early in the documentary we are taken through a series of key events in and around the 2009 festival as Gertten and the team react to the Dole company's determination to contact and intimidate seemingly anyone involved in the film. One scene in particular makes for uncomfortable viewing - Gertten is forced, in order to get his film screened at all, to read a disclaimer before the screening audience saying that due to accusations that a key lawyer in the Nicaraguan lawsuit has been accused of being a fraud (a key plank in Dole's defence) and other issues, his documentary can only be shown as an out-of-competition curiosity to provoke debate about truth, not as a fact-based study. Regardless of this concession by Gertten and the nervous LA festival authorities, Dole sued him for libel.

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This is where things really take a turn into what one PR guru, interviewed in the film, calls the 'dark side' of the media world. Gertten believes that media outlets and other figures that should have taken his side aligned themselves with Dole as the lawsuit dragged on, regardless of whether they had seen his documentary or not, victims of the spiderweb of corporate pressure. Though it is not clear that the full array of scare tactics mentioned in the film were ever used against Gertten (he actually seems to have got off quite lightly considering the corporate weapons discussed here), the talking heads from the media world - PR execs, former journalists, other filmmakers - provide some of the more troubling yet fascinating insights in the documentary as to how modern corporate entities can react when they come under the spotlight. In short, they often act like paranoid, trampling elephants, despite all their power. Unlike their targets, they have endless pockets, and therefore endless options and time. As Gertten's lawyer warns him, it doesn't have to even really come down to them finding a smoking gun to ruin your reputation, they can simply spend you to death, exhaust you. Then there are the insidious media tools that the untrained eye might miss - planted bloggers and commentators on websites, behind the scenes threats to withdraw advertising, and co-opted thinktanks.

As the video diary tracks Gertten's agonising progress through this legal standoff and the constant parallel media pressure from Dole, it is hard not to notice how he looks more and more drained as he jets between legal meetings and interviews, trying to find a way through. Yet this is Sweden, not the USA, and the Swedish parliament and public opinion eventually came to his aid (the film was even specially screened in the Swedish parliament building), forcing Dole to drop the lawsuit.

Gertten is very much favourably portrayed as the underdog here, and the film doesn't really give Dole much of a chance at rebuttal, nor are the details of their criticisms of his original film delved into as deeply as they could be to provide more balance. Gertten can always claim that he won all the key legal victories however (he fought back, overturned Dole's lawsuit in an LA court and won a payout, and the lawyer involved in the legal case in Nicaragua was apparently cleared, according to the closing titles ). Big Boys Go Bananas, an odd documentary-about-a-documentary, acts nonetheless as a timely warning for all filmmakers looking to stick their noses in. After all, as one public relations firm's official brochure proudly states, for powerful corporate clients it is “easier to cope with a bad conscience than a bad reputation.”

Reviewed on: 26 Sep 2012
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Big Boys Gone Bananas!* packshot
The story of how Dole food corporation tried to suppress a documentary about them.
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