Back in 2009, Swedish documentarian Fredrik Gertten made >Bananas!*, which chronicled a lawsuit filed on behalf of Nicaraguan fruit workers who had been sterilized by exposure to pesticides used by the Dole Food Company. That documentary quickly ran afoul of Dole’s legal machinery, which went to extraordinary lengths to put the kibosh on it, a process Gertten lays bare in his self-reflexive follow-up Big Boys Gone Bananas!* At this juncture in history, the hypothesis that corporations aren’t exactly trustworthy institutions, that they don’t hold the citizenry’s best interests at heart, will shock absolutely nobody. (This is true, at least in part, owing to an entire subgenre of anti-corporation documentaries that have come out over the last few decades.) Gertten’s documentary works best, then, when it provides a surfeit of details that expose corporate chicanery via PR misdirection and legal scare tactics.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* hews to a traditional three-act structure, analogous in many ways to a piece of fiction filmmaking, and that’s probably not coincidental. The film’s very title (folding in, as it does, the previous film’s) indicates its incessantly reflexive nature. Participants in the film are constantly commenting on the resemblance of unfolding events to a Hollywood legal thriller or courtroom drama (Philadelphia even gets a nod). The first act follows Gertten to the North American premiere of Bananas!* at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Impending litigation from Dole prompts festival organizers to balk, shunting the film to a lowly sidebar, where it’s presented as a “test case” in the reliability of documentary filmmaking, since its contents have been deemed legally fraudulent (the outcome of prior Dole litigation). The second act documents the pervasive and pernicious influence of corporations on journalism, leading the viewer through so-called strategic communications (“claiming the narrative” by getting your spin on it out there first) and the phenomenon of “astroturfing” (planting corporate-sponsored yet independent-seeming comments online in various forums). This segment also delves into the alleged “cowardice” of American journalism, citing the case of the Cincinnati Enquirer’s capitulation to Chiquita on a story they threatened to go to court over, in effect wiping their database clean of any indication that the story had ever been published. The final act focuses on how Sweden rallies to the film’s defense after Gertten’s invited to screen it for Swedish Parliament. In this version of events, Sweden gets to assay the role of plucky little social-democratic David against Dole’s overly litigious Goliath—an analogy explicitly referenced more than once).
Given the nature of the material, it’s hardly surprising that Gertten places himself at the center of the juridical maelstrom; nevertheless, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that, by plastering his face across nearly every frame, he’s serving more than just the interests of disenfranchised Nicaraguan fruit pickers. Furthermore, the film’s unambiguous David-versus-Goliath framework allows Gertten to indulge in the pesky habit of preaching to the choir. “Boycott Dole!” stands ready as the knee-jerk response—one I heard often enough after the film’s screening at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Nor does this difficulty reside entirely in the film’s reception: Its very tone and tectonics encourage this kind of hasty and uncritical corporate-bashing, especially given Gertten’s eventual victory over the Dole lawsuit, an inoculation of “the little man ultimately triumphs” that effectively preempts viewers’ investigation into their own participation in larger structures of power. Ultimately, it’s a moot point whether or not such critical sentiments are deserved (it’s hard to argue that Dole acted contemptibly); the issue remains that this variety of faux-populism seems better suited to the soapbox than the silver screen.