Fredrik Gertten’s Big Boys Gone Bananas!* tells the kind of gripping, contemporary story of Kafkaesque corporate persecution that any earnest politicised documentary maker would take pains to seek out. Any earnest politicised documentary maker except for Fredrik Gertten, that is. The subject of Gertten’s latest documentary is himself, and the alarming media harassment and debilitating legal wrangles he encountered as a result of trying to release his 2009 documentary Bananas!*.
His earlier film, Bananas!*, had been about a conflict between the Dole Food Company and impoverished banana plantation workers from Nicaragua, over the former’s use of an illegal pesticide which allegedly caused sterility in the exploited third-world workers. With his earlier film, then, Gertten was the unwitting architect of yet another compelling real-life narrative about the excesses of corporate power, in the vein of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004), Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and Gertten’s own Bananas!*. It is therefore not surprising that, despite finding a rich narrative so ripe for a politically-committed documentary, Gertten spends much of his latest film looking like a broken man.
Bananas!* was originally planned for premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2009. As the opening of Big Boys Gone Bananas!* shows, however, his small film company WG Film, which comprises five individuals including his wife, received a two-hundred-page cease-and-desist letter from the Dole Food Company a few days prior to the event, threatening that they would be sued for defamation. While Gertten and his colleagues were keen to press on with the premiere in resistance of the legal action, it transpired that the Los Angeles Film Festival and its sponsors had all received similar threats from Dole. Shamefully, the Film Festival made the decision to show Bananas!* out of competition, prefaced by a disclaimer agreed with Dole, which seriously discredited the film’s integrity. As shown in Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, the earlier film’s premiere is not triumphant, but awkward and marred by its context. Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2008), argues in a talking-head that Bananas!* was not shown as a film, but as a “case study” or, as Dole intended, as “a bunch of crap”.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, then, is a contemporary David-and-Goliath story of a harried independent Swedish documentarian’s fight to release a low-key political film against an American multinational food corporation’s fight to defend their global brand. Gertten’s latest documentary is not spectacular or experimental. It is the content of the film, rather, that is striking. Eschewing the more sensationalist aspects of the contemporary trend for so-called “docu-ganda” (documentary-come-propaganda), Gertten’s latest film is remarkably even-handed, to the extent of sympathising with its target. As Big Boys Gone Bananas!* points out, commercial companies who have spent years projecting wholesome images of themselves and building up their reputation are understandably fiercely protective of their public image. Given the worldwide dominance of the Dole Food Company, and the fact that its origins can be traced back to their parent-company Castle & Cooke, founded in 1851, this brand protectiveness is especially virulent.
As one expert talking-head in the film points out, we live in “an era of extreme reputation anxiety”. What Gertten’s latest documentary shows more than anything else are the effects of living in such an era. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* draws attention to the extreme, but more or less successful, lengths a powerful corporation will go to in order to defend themselves against bad publicity, however minor a threat this publicity may seem. Gertten’s film also shows the harrowing effects of this “extreme reputation anxiety” on those caught on the wrong side of the multinational corporation. The most troubling thing that the film exposes is the extent to which a corporation can manipulate the press, the media, and even the legal system.