June 13, 2009

Controversy Surrounds 'Bananas!*' Doc

This developing story was updated on June 13, 2009.

The tale of Bananas!* has just gone, well, bananas. The truthfulness of the doc, which follows crusading lawyer Juan Dominguez as he represents Nicaraguan banana plantation workers who say they were poisoned by pesticides used by Dole Food Co. Inc. on its farms, has come into question, spurring a debate and reactions from the filmmakers.

The controversy has turned the June 20 and June 23 screenings of Bananas!* at the Los Angeles Film Festival into a case study examining what happens when a story continues to evolve after filming.

The issue ignited on June 8, when the Los Angeles Business Journal reported the following accusation of Fredrik Gertten's film:

A judge found that the supposedly heroic lawyer actually took part in a massive fraud against Dole, the Westlake Village food giant. The judge said the supposed victims weren't sterile and had never even worked on Dole's banana farms.

The filmmakers of Bananas!* are standing by their product. Bananas!* co-producer Bart Simpson contacted the IDA saying that the above statement is false and that Judge Chaney's actual statement can be found in court documents posted on the movie's website. Check page 172 of the document for this:

"I don't have any opinion as to whether or not there was any wrongdoing by any of the defendants. We'll never know….

…We'll never know if anybody in Nicaragua was actually injured or harmed by the alleged wrongful conduct of the defendants, and people will never have the opportunity to learn, since this fraud is so pervasive and extensive that it has forever contaminated even our own ability to ever know the truth."

Furthermore, on a letter posted on the movie's website entitled "BANANAS!* under fire - an update," they go on to state that "no one from Dole, Dole’s lawyers--Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP--or the Los Angeles Business Journal have actually seen the film. Their comments are based on pure speculation."

In a letter to the documentary filmmaking community, the filmmakers are working to clarify the issue and point out the increasingly harsh actions by Dole against the film (the letter is printed below this article in its entirety).

The film follows a landmark court case--Tellez et. al. v. Dole Food Company Inc. et. al.--where a group of Nicaraguan banana workers, with the help of attorney Juan Dominguez, sues Dole Food for using a banned pesticide in their Nicaraguan plantations….

… In January, 2008, a full jury found Dole Food guilty of causing harms to the workers, and of acting with malicious intent. They awarded damages to the workers, and Dole is now appealing the verdict. Despite this appeal, during the trial the CEO of Dole Food admitted on the stand that he continued to use the aforementioned pesticide in his Nicaraguan plantations, after it was banned in the US.

Dominguez had many other, similar cases in line following the Tellez case. Dole accused Dominguez of fraud, and the presiding Judge, Victoria Chaney, sided with Dole and threw out all remaining cases, finding plaintiff and plaintiff attorney misconduct and fraud. At this point the Tellez decision stands, and case is still under appeal by Dole. However according to Judge Chaney, these recent developments have called the validity of certain aspects of the Tellez case into question. As those of you who have done courtroom documentaries can attest, court cases can keep developing years after the verdict. Regardless of the final outcome, the film is an accurate representation of the case over a period of time, and our broadcasters and all our other partners support the film 100%.

Dominguez is currently fighting all charges of fraud against him and the L.A. Business Journal reports that a hearing is scheduled for June 17, when Chaney will decide whether Dominguez's alleged involvement in the fraud calls for monetary sanctions. However this shakes out, one winner in all of this is LAFF. We're sure the screenings will be quite the ticket. An update from their site says:

In his most recent film, Fredrik Gertten chronicles the case of Nicaraguan banana laborers, represented by L.A. attorney Juan Dominguez, against the companies that they claim poisoned them with pesticides. Between the film's completion and its screening at this year's Festival, critical new elements of the case have come to light.

What happens when a story continues to evolve after the shooting stops? This case study and screening will explore the relationship between documentary filmmaking, objective and subjective point of view, as well as the rights and responsibilities of activist filmmaking.

Get more info about LAFF and the Bananas!* screenings the Los Angeles Film Festival website.
Get info and news about Bananas!* and updates on this story at the movie's website.
Follow Fredrik Gertten on Twitter here.
Check out the Bananas!* Facebook page here.


The letter to the documentary filmmaking community in its entirety:

Dear colleagues,
We have been working on the feature documentary BANANAS!* since 2006, and we are slated to launch the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, held June 18-28 this year.

The film follows a landmark court case--Tellez et. al. v. Dole Food Company Inc. et. al.--where a group of Nicaraguan banana workers, with the help of attorney Juan Dominguez, sues Dole Food for using a banned pesticide in their Nicaraguan plantations. Prolonged exposure to this pesticide was known to cause sterility in human males. It was the first time that agricultural workers from the developing world gave testimony against a US-based multinational in a US court.

In January, 2008, a full jury found Dole Food guilty of causing harms to the workers, and of acting with malicious intent. They awarded damages to the workers, and Dole is now appealing the verdict. Despite this appeal, during the trial the CEO of Dole Food admitted on the stand that he continued to use the aforementioned pesticide in his Nicaraguan plantations, after it was banned in the US.

Dominguez had many other, similar cases in line following the Tellez case. Dole accused Dominguez of fraud, and the presiding Judge, Victoria Chaney, sided with Dole and threw out all remaining cases, finding plaintiff and plaintiff attorney misconduct and fraud. At this point the Tellez decision stands, and case is still under appeal by Dole. However according to Judge Chaney, these recent developments have called the validity of certain aspects of the Tellez case into question. As those of you who have done courtroom documentaries can attest, court cases can keep developing years after the verdict. Regardless of the final outcome, the film is an accurate representation of the case over a period of time, and our broadcasters and all our other partners support the film 100%.

To date, neither Dole or Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP have actually seen our film. They are basing their comments on a three-minute trailer and information posted on our website.

On May 8, the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, who represented Dole in court, attempted to get Judge Chaney to stop the film from being screened at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. The Judge stated to those present: “Just so we are clear, I am not in any way going to make, and I will not consider, any request for prior restraint on free speech. Okay? So, don't ask me to go try and contact the film company. I don't have jurisdiction over them. But even if I did, don’t ask me for it.”

As they were unsuccessful with Judge Chaney, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP sent us a letter demanding we "cease and desist" from plans to screen the film at the Festival. The first such letter sent to us, on May 8 of this year, was copied to all the corporate sponsors of the LA Film Festival, but was not copied to the LA Film Festival itself. A copy of this letter and related letters are on our website under the "Resources"section.

Dole's team is now moving on to yet another strategy and have contacted the Swedish Consulate in LA and the Swedish Ambassador to the US in Washington, asking them to help stop the film. To date they have only succeeded in getting the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) to pull out of "co-hosting" the film's opening night at the Festival. However, a lawyer from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher serves on the board of directors of the LAFLA. Again, all this is without Dole or Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher having actually seen the film.

Out of respect to the LA Film Festival, we did not publicize any of these actions until now. However with days to go before our premiere, we are spreading the word.

We are considering all our options given Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher's actions.

As we move forward, we hope you as our allies in the international documentary community will throw your support behind us. Dole and their counsel's interference with us, ITVS, the Festival, and their sponsors represent a serious threat to independent documentary production.

Please join our mailing list for breaking news and join our facebook group by the “F” link on that same page.

Things will begin to move rapidly, and we will keep you updated as they come.

In thanks and solidarity,
Fredrik Gertten
Margarete Jangård
Lise-Lens Moller
Bart Simpson
BANANAS!*