Dan Koeppel is the author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World as well as a contributor to National Geographic, Wired, and The New York Times. Below are his liner notes, originally written for the US edition of the BANANAS!* DVD.
DVD liner notes
If efforts to suppress a voice are an indication of the truth it speaks, then a banana company’s reaction to Fredrik Gertten’s BANANAS!* is more testament to the power and veracity of the film than any review or encapsulation. The lawsuit filed by Dole that attempted to suppress this documentary is the external story. The one told by the film itself documents the plight of banana workers in Nicaragua, who were systematically poisoned during the 1970s through the spraying of a pesticide chemical called Nemagon.The results were a host of maladies: sterilization, respiratory ills, and cancers. BANANAS!* tells this tale by chronicling a trial in a Los Angeles Courtroom, where for the first time ever, banana workers brought their claims to a United States court. The accounts they give are both appalling and moving.
BANANAS!* is filled with arresting scenes, and the in court testimony of current Dole CEO David DeLorenzo is among its most shocking. He admits under oath that his company knew the chemical was unsafe, but continued to use it with only scant concern for the men, women, and children dwelling on the plantations that produced the world’s most popular and profitable fruit crop. DeLorenzo’s attestations contain not just corporate history, but personal. He managed the banana company’s operations in Nicaragua during the Nemagon era. He effectively signed off on the chemical’s use.
Perhaps because of this, when BANANAS!* was set to premier at the 2009 Los Angeles International Film Festival, Dole threatened to launch a slander suit against both the event and the filmmaker. The result was an unprecedented instance of creative cowardice: asserting that a lawsuit could jeopardize its future, the festival removed the film from competition and showed it in a hastily constructed “test-case” category. It was a surreal moment: viewers were forced to line up and read a disclaimer - really a disavowal - of the film. In return for the festival’s capitulation, Dole sued only Gertten. Filmmaker Robert Kenner, director of Food, Inc. (2008), said in a statement of support for Gertten, “It’s alarming how much power [corporations] have to keep us uninformed. When transparency is lost, we are all in danger.” The result could have been that you’d never get the chance to see this film (and filmmakers might be wary of exposing these stories in the first place). With a lawsuit hanging over it, distribution in the United States became almost impossible.
In other countries, BANANAS!* was seen. Outrage over Dole’s actions mounted; supermarket boycotts were instituted, first in Sweden, and then spreading to other European nations. In 2010, a year after the company filed the legal action, the suit was dismissed. The judge in the case determined that Dole’s case was frivolous and constituted harassment against Gertten. The banana company was forced to pay Gertten’s legal fees of nearly $200,000.
A win for the little guy – and for free speech? Yes, but despite the legal defeat, Dole’s strategy kept BANANAS!* away from viewers for many months. It damaged the credibility of the film, since reports of the suit were far more prominent than accounts of the suit’s collapse. Meanwhile, as the banana company likely hoped, interest in what the film chronicled might have gone stale. That these things didn’t happen isn’t a matter of luck. BANANAS!* is that powerful. That’s because the genuine story of the film - the brutal treatment banana workers and their families were subjected to - is real and riveting. By showing how the fight for justice continues today - not just in courtrooms, but in the bananalands of Central America where little has changed - the film shows an ultimate truth and an ultimate victory.
More articles by Dan Koeppel on this site:
- October 6, 2009: Why is Dole suing a filmmaker?