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When the big boys go bananas you’d better grab your camera

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It would be an understatement to say that the odds were uneven.

On one side: a multinational cooperation with 77 000 employees, an army of juridical experts and a bank account of astronomical proportions.

On the other side: the Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, a film production company with a couple of employees with money finance one lawyer at the most. A cheap one.

How could they possibly win a fight against the food giant? In feature movies the David character always is introduced getting a beating in order to make us sympathize with him, but eventually he’ll triumph over Goliath, since that’s what the audience wants. But this was a documentary, showing the real world where bad guys do win. A lot.

The boys referred in the titleof  Big Boys Gone Bananas!* are the people in charge at Dole Food Company. And “gone bananas” is a very accurate description of their behaviour, at least from my point of view, having a background in journalism and PR. More than anything else this is an excellent example of how NOT to do if your job is to take care of the reputation of a company or a brand.

How it began

But let’s get back to the beginning. It all started with the making of another documentary, Bananas!* from 2009. This film is about a number of banana workers who went to court, claiming that Dole Food Company had made them infertile by the careless usage of the pesticide DBCP, and after a long struggle most of them won.

It’s definitely a good documentary, worth a watching, but to be completely honest I wouldn’t call it world changing, at least not for me, since I’ve worked in this field.

The film focuses on what happens in the court room, how pesticides were used historically and what consequences those past events have had on the lives of the banana workers. It says very little about the conditions for the banana workers of today.

With all the respect for the suffering that employees have gone through due to the sloppy handling of pesticides back in time, I would rather be interested to see someone taking a close look at the current conditions. Only then can we make informed decisions on which bananas to buy. I won’t boycott a company for something they did in the 60s provided they’ve changed their practice and make good things today. But if it’s something that is still going on, it’s an entirely different story.

We sometimes hear companies claiming that things have improved and refer to their own certification system, called “Rainforest Alliance”. My question is: is this a real change or just empty words? Can this label be trusted the same way we trust organic or fair-trade bananas? The film doesn’t go into this.

If I was employed at the PR department of Dole, I wouldn’t have been overly worried about Bananas!* I would probably have admitted the wrongs the company did in the past and pointed at the current routines to protect the workers and the environment. And I would look for dialogue, not confrontation. It would be a typical case of classic damage control.

Dole however didn’t settle for damage control. They went in another direction. They went nuts. And that’s the subject for the follow-up documentary, Big Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

LA film festival
The film begins when Bananas!* is about to be launched in US, opening at the film festival in Los Angeles. But Dole doesn’t want this to happen. By sending letters with threats, referring to possible coming lawsuits, they almost manage to stop the film from being shown altogether. In the end the arrangers show the film, but only after agreeing to ridiculous demands from Dole, meaning that they’ll read an announcement before the screening where they basically say that the film is a heap of lies and shouldn’t be trusted.

Dole proceeds suing the producers and for obvious reasons the film doesn’t get any distribution in US. Even journalists feel threatened in their contacts with the company.

Things looked bad, really really bad to Gertten and his colleagues. Not only was the movie stopped from distribution; their private economy was also put at risk. Dole offered a “compromise” where they would allow the movie to be distributed in US, but under the condition that the film would go through a lot of changes according to the wishes of the fruit company. The filmmakers said no. But how long could this go on?

The turning point
We’re now at the point in a film following the classic dramaturgy where the hero lies unconscious on the ground – robbed, blood in his face, alone in the world, the rain pouring down. It’s time to flip it over.

In this case the turning point turns out to be an e-mail written by a man who as he had a meal at a hamburger restaurant noted that they served fruit portions from Dole. Knowing about the controversy from media, he wrote to the management of the restaurant chain and where he questioned their decision to make business deals with a company that didn’t observe the right to free speech.

The company took this letter seriously, made an investigation of their own and reacted to it. And then things escalated.

I won’t tell you the end of the story. You have to see for yourself. But I’ll say as much as that I can’t recall last time a documentary made me cry as much as I did during the last 30 minutes of this film. Not even Senna made me like this.

It was tears caused by joy, relief and the insight that the things we do matter more than we believe. An e-mail, a blog post or just your choice of banana brand as you’re standing in grocery store – can have further going effects than you imagine. The big boy may seem scary if they go bananas at you, but by this doesn’t follow that they’ll always win.

Apart from in Sweden, those films have mostly been shown at film festivals, so it can be a bit tricky to find them. But you can buy them directly from the filmmakers through their website, were you also can give your support through donations or helping to spread the word.

(Fredrik Gertten, SWE, 2009) My rating: 4/5 
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (Fredrik Gertten, SWE, 2012) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

August 29, 2012 at 11:47 pm