When a corporation slips on a banana skin
By Daniel Nelson
Remember McLibel, the documentary about a British court case between the fast good giant and a former postman and a gardener from London? Now another inspirational doc, Big Boys Gone Bananas!, shows that ordinary people can defeat the ruthless commercial and legal might of transnational corporations.
But it was a close-run victory.
Director Fredrik Gertten and the tiny staff of the Swedish company that made Bananas! (no, not the Woody Allen film), about a group of Dole Food Company workers in Nicaragua who became ill from pesticide use, stood to lose their possessions and livelihoods when the company sued them – and everyone else who touched the film.
Dole, for example, tried to frighten off the Los Angeles film festival that was intending to show the film by writing to all the festival sponsors. Legal threats were backed up by a PR campaign that produced huge pro-Dole headlines, particularly in the US. Even in Sweden, no radio station that mentioned the film was too small to receive Dole’s attention. The company also tried to impugn the integrity of the lawyer, Juan Dominguez, who had championed the cause of the Nicaraguan workers, which would enable the corporation to tell journalists that the film was based on lies.
Dole’s torrent of claims about the film’s “lies” began even before anyone at Dole had seen the film.
That encapsulated the company’s approach: not to disagree with the film and engage in debate, but to crush it.
Fortunately, Gertten and colleagues didn’t cave in, despite the crushing weight of Dole’s campaign, and he filmed the resistance to produce this second documentary. It’s brilliant – gripping, frightening, thought-provoking, instructive, entertaining.
Viewers will draw different lessons from it.
One lesson, obviously, is the uncovering of the true nature of some transnational corporations. I remember telling my father, not a gullible man, about the lengths to which some pharmaceutical companies would go to promote their products (as evidenced again ilast year when GlaxoSmithKline was ordered to pay $3 billion to settle what US government officials called the largest healthcare fraud in US history). He simply didn’t believe me: the people running such companies couldn’t be as greedy or criminal or immoral as I was suggesting.
Another insight is the supineness of large parts of the US media, “the astounding loss of curiosity”, especially when it comes to corporations – of which the media is a part.
One of the turning points in the filmmakers’ resistance was their decision to counter-sue. Their claim that Dole was suppressing their free speech rights shifted the battleground and enabled them to take the offensive.
A second, crucial, turning point was the screening of the film in the Swedish Parliament. The screening drew support from conservative free-speech supporters as well as from anti-corporate left-wing types, and the blitzkrieg of documents that Dole dropped on MPs increased their hostility and helped frame their view of the controversy as a foreign corporation’s attempt to tell Swedish MPs what to do. The ensuing publicity contributed to a consumer backlash against Dole products, which captured the attention of Dole’s European executives and seems to have been the key element in the company’s decision to halt the juggernaut.
It was an epic victory: “The big boys lost.” David beat Goliath. A California court also ruled that Dominguez was free of all “allegations of professional misconduct”.
As one of the Nicaraguan workers commented, when shown the film: “Stories like this one about poverty and injustice need to be shown over and over again.”
* Big Boys Gone Bananas is showing at the UK Green Film Festival
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