In the eyes of Swedish documentary filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, his documentary “Bananas!” is a balanced, nuanced depiction of a trial pitting Nicaraguan banana plantation workers and a prominent L.A. attorney against a powerful multinational agribusiness.
“It is a classical David-Goliath story,” the director said in a phone interview last week.
In the eyes of Dole Food Co., Gertten’s film is an egregiously flawed document based on what Dole lawyer Scott Edelman calls “a phony story” that has been discredited by the allegedly fraudulent conduct of the L.A. attorney, Juan J. Dominguez, at the film’s center. Dole, the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, is vowing to sue both the filmmaker and the Los Angeles Film Festival for defamation if it screens the movie this week.
In the view of the festival, which plans to host the movie’s world premiere on Saturday, “Bananas!” is an intriguing object lesson that raises important questions about the conduct of U.S. companies abroad, the practices of American attorneys representing foreign workers and the ethical choices facing a documentary filmmaker who has been told after finishing his film that some of his material may be shaky, if not outright false.
The 15-year-old festival is sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and runs Thursday through June 28.
The events that “Bananas!” partially chronicles are complex and the subject of ongoing lawsuits and disputes.
They center on Dole’s acknowledged past use of the pesticide dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, in Nicaragua and other countries. Banana farmers and other plantation workers have taken Dole to court, seeking millions of dollars in damages, contending that they were rendered sterile by exposure to the pesticide, which has been banned in the United States since 1979.
Thousands of plaintiffs in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast and other countries have brought cases against Dole and pesticide manufacturers. Lawyers for some Nicaraguan plaintiffs have taken their cases to U.S. courts, hoping they will enforce verdicts against Dole that have been awarded by Nicaraguan courts.
Among the attorneys representing Nicaraguan plaintiffs is Dominguez, a Cuban-born personal injury lawyer whose face appears on local bus advertisements and billboards. He appears prominently throughout “Bananas!” as his case progresses and he visits Nicaragua, providing some of the film’s voice-over commentary. At one point he characterizes himself as a champion of “the little guy.”
In a 2007 jury trial before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney, Dole lost and was ordered to pay $1.58 million to four of the dozen Nicaraguans claiming injury in that case, several of whom are depicted in Gertten’s film. Dole is appealing that case.
Then this spring, in a dramatic reversal of events, Chaney threw out two other lawsuits against Dole after being presented by Dole investigators with evidence gathered from Nicaraguans who said that they had been recruited and coached by lawyers, outfitted with false work histories and falsified medical lab reports, and promised payouts to pose as pesticide victims.
In her April 23, 2009 ruling on the case, Chaney said that “the actions of the attorneys in Nicaragua and some of the attorneys in the United States, specifically the Law Offices of Juan Dominguez, have perverted the court’s ability to deliver justice to those parties that come before it.”
“What has occurred here is not just a fraud on this court, but it is blatant extortion of the defendants,” i.e. Dole, the judge said in her ruling. The “plaintiffs’ fraud,” the judge said, “permeates every aspect of this case.”
Dominguez is facing contempt charges for his alleged participation in the fraud, and Judge Chaney has said she would refer the case to the state attorney general and the California Bar Assn. for possible disciplinary actions. Dominguez has denied any wrongdoing and declined further comment.
Gertten’s film had been completed for months prior to this spring’s developments and was accepted by the film festival for screening. Rebecca Yeldham, the festival’s director, said that the movie had been removed from playing in the “competition” category, where it would be eligible for awards, and is now being presented as a “case study.”
The festival screenings will be prefaced by a statement, written and delivered by festival organizers, that the organizers intend to place the controversy surrounding the film in context, Yeldham said. The screenings will be followed by a discussion of the issues the movie raises.
‘Point of view’
“We feel that, responsibly, we need to be able to present that movie to our audiences,” Yeldham said. The filmmaker, she said, had acted in “good faith” in making the movie.
“This is the filmmaker’s point of view. It’s not ours,” Yeldham said. “We do not program only movies that reflect our subjectivity.”
But Dole asserts that no amount of “contextualizing” or disclaimers -- including a brief postscript to the trial that Gertten recently added to the end of his movie -- would be sufficient to offset what the company contends are the gross factual distortions that were put forward by the plaintiffs in court.
“It’s a phony, fraudulent story that was made up in one of the worst frauds that I’ve ever seen in a court in 25 years of practice,” Edelman said. “Our position is, even if the filmmaker didn’t know this at the outset, he knows it now and the film should not be screened. It needs to be entirely rewritten to reflect the facts.”
Edelman said he had not yet seen the film because neither Gertten nor the festival had agreed to show it to him. The filmmaker and festival organizers said they had invited Dole representatives to attend Saturday night’s screening.
“We’ve invited them in various ways, and if something’s not accurate [about the film] they ought to tell us,” said Michael Donaldson, a lawyer representing the festival and its parent organization, Film Independent.
On May 8, Dole sent letters to the festival’s major sponsors, including The Times, denouncing what Dole called the “false and defamatory accusations” made by the film. The company asked the sponsors for “your assistance in preventing the Festival’s complicity in this travesty,” but did not elaborate in its letter as to what this might mean.
“We’re not asking any judge to prevent this film from being shown,” Edelman said. “We’re just saying, ‘Hey, you got the facts wrong, grossly wrong. And it’s unfair to Dole to show this film.’ ”
Gertten believes that his movie, which essentially ends in the fall of 2007, has a valid story to tell, even as that story continues to evolve. “I have to tell the story as I saw it, and that’s what I do, and that story ends at that moment,” he said.