BANANAS!*

 

BANANAS!*

Written & Directed by Fredrik Gertten

2009


Featuring:

Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez

Duane Miller

Rick McKnight

 

Studio:

Theatrical: WG Film

Video: Oscilloscope Laboratories

 

Video:

Resolution: 480i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Codec: MPEG-2

Runtime: 87 minutes

Chapters: 16

Region: All

 

Audio

English & Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0

English & Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1

 

Subtitles

English, French & Spanish

 

Extras:

• The Fight - with Fredrik Gertten (8:30)

• “Super abogado” J Dominguez’ TV commercials (1:00)

• “Pictures from a Banana Plantation” (13:00)

• “About Bananas” [1935] (10:45)

  1. “Journey to Banana Land” [1950] (20:40)

• Q&A with Director Gertten at the Swedish Premiere (23:20)

  1. Cover essay by Dan Koeppel: “An Ultimate Truth, An Ultimate Victory”

  2. Oscilloscope trailers


Presentation:

Custom gatefold paper DVD case w/ slipcover

Release Date: May 10, 2011



Product Description:

Considering the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival’s had trepidations about showing this work, it is not all that surprising that, to date, Frederik Gertten's documentary about the class action suit brought against Dole Food Company by Nicaraguan plantation workers in a Los Angeles court has not yet received serious international distribution - until now - thanks to Oscilloscope Films and thanks to the home video medium of DVD.  Oscilloscope may not the first to put the film on DVD (I think that would be Mongrel Media, Canada, Projektor in German, among others), but theirs will certainly be the most persuasively produced.


               

 

The Movie: 7

I used to wonder about documentary teams that follow certain likely winners in athletic events or beauty pageants as they make their way through the ordeal of training and preparation.  I asked myself how those who turned out not to win felt in retrospect.  I’m sure my concern says more about me than it does about them, but questions around the selection of those so interviewed and how the filmmakers approached them linger.  And so it is with Swedish filmmaker, Frederik Gertten, who made the decision to make a film of what could have been and might still be (the jury is still out in some ways) class action trial of our time. 


To win such a case would be dambreaking, and it would also have been unlikely.  So for all concerned on the side of the plaintiffs to put such money and resources to bear, and for Gertten to have done the same over a completely unpredictable period of time speaks volumes of what is involved in the making of documentaries that cover history in the making, as opposed to those, like Michael Woods’ excellent, if optimistically titled “Story of India,” that are more archeological in nature.


               


Gertten was interested in the story of the plaintiffs and the law firms that pressed their case. He did not interview the defendants or their lawyers.  Those people are represented only by the courtroom video cameras.  By its very nature, BANANAS!* is not meant to be balanced.  The wonder is that Gertten’s edit of the court video does exactly that.  The opposing side does not come off as fools.  Unfeeling, yes.  But stupid, no.  These guys have been through lawsuits like this before - in Nicaragua and Miami where huge judgments have been levied against them.


               


So what was this case about:  The plaintiffs are a dozen Nicaraguan banana plantation workers who claim that Dole Fruit Co. deliberately and knowingly permitted the use of a pesticide, DBCP, to be used in a way that could not help but contaminate them and, in so doing, made them sterile.  The time frame of these events is of some consequence: Dow Chemical’s DBCP had been in use for many years when in 1977 the U.S. government declared it unsafe for use for the very reason that it was proved to cause sterility, among other things.  It was thereby banned in the U.S. and in many other countries  Moreover, Dow halted production forthwith, but they still had massive stockpiles which Dole, a U.S. company, ordered for their banana plantations in Central America just days after the resolution prohibiting their use in the U.S.  However long those stockpiles lasted, we are talking about events and possible consequences of more than thirty years ago.


               


It’s a tough nut to crack and harder still to prove in court, especially as Dole could afford the best legal talent in the country and all the Nicaraguans had was a successful ambulance chaser and a sharp chief litigator, Duane Miller.  The ambulance chaser is one Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez, whose name is plastered all over buses and billboards in L.A.  It is he who is followed by Gertten’s camera as Dominguez and his team investigates the complaints by plantation workers in Nicaragua, all of whom are necessarily old by this time, and his meetings with Miller.  We also see how he lives and get a ride in his spunky little red Ferarri.  All the same, it’s a little heartbreaking, anticipating how little chance this particular David has against this particular Goliath.


Gertten’s final film is a mix of on-the-spot interviews conducted by Dominguez and his people, archive footage about the banana plantation business, strategy sessions back in L.A. and considerable edits of testimony and examination of witness on both sides in Los Angeles Superior Court.  Most astonishing, perhaps, is the presence on the stand of Dole’s then newly appointed CEO, David DeLorenzo.  His responses to questions about the decision to continue to use DBCP are, to put it mildly, chilling.


               


Critical Reaction:

[ScreenJabber]

The film follows the legal battle between a number of Nicaraguan banana plant workers and their employers at Dole, highlighting how the company persisted in using black-listed pesticides that were known to cause infertility and even fatality, despite given clear warnings. Fighting the central Americans' case is Juan Dominguez, a rabble-rousing Cuban of the Injury-Lawyers-For-You variety, who takes the side of David against Goliath, as Dole repeatedly try to squash the charges. It couldn't be a more polarised battle - the rustic and naive charm of the Nicaraguans and the ramshackle legal team against the slick, dismissive and bruising defendants of Dole.


               


BANANAS!* feels like more like message in a bottle than a film. The film-makers were attacked with the same ferocity by hair-trigger litigious Dole, who also attempted to sue the LA Film Festival for showing it. The fact that we get to watch this represents a victory for Gerttan [sic] and the Nicaraguans, more so than the film's merits. Gerttan allows the film to play out like the case, a gentle, slightly fatigued tone underpins it, with the story playing out as if there's no strength left for outrage - though in fairness, the loathsomeness of Dole does the legwork for them. Their inhumane attitude is laid bare in the courtroom by the Dole boss Delorenzo and his hotshot lawyer McKnight, who couldn't be more of a flat-top, Eighties ball-busting caricature. While the evidence points to the workers being made impotent by the pesticide, McKnight casually challenges them to prove they were impotent before. This successfully highlights a key truth - that a moral victory and a legal victory are two very different things. – Neil Queen


               

 

[ATNZONE]

An extremely well crafted film, in addition to the courtroom drama, there is raw human emotion and even humor. This is life. This is litigation. This is a front row seat to a history making event, that of third world claimants being heard as plaintiffs for the first time in a U.S. Court. That in and of itself makes this film worthwhile. Gertten doesn’t get bogged down in facts and figures but for that told through trial, testimony and evidence. (Anyone with any doubts can go to the internet for some factual research.) He lets the camera tell the story, letting it flow, and then using his editing tools to establish pacing and tension as he builds to the ultimate verdicts. There is a polish to the overall production with its many textural components of archival footage, courtroom footage and present day observations and background material that makes for a compelling human drama. And as with all good documentaries, it raises questions - and not just about the legal turmoil - but about corporate responsibility, ethics and human rights. – Debbie Lynn Elias


[Ms. Elias’ review is an analysis of the context of this documentary's appearance at the 2009 L.A. Film Festival as well as a detailed history of Gertten’s involvement with the project.  Not to be missed. - LN]


               

 

Extras: 9

Oscilloscope has provided a useful assortment of bonus features.  You should head right off to the two archive short “educational” films about the banana trade as it applies to the U.S. and Central America (called “Middle America” in the earlier film.)  The first “About Bananas” dates from 1935.  Frankly I had no idea such propaganda films were made that early. The second, “Journey to Banana Land,” was produced in 1950.  It’s slicker, in color, more persuasive and surprisingly - I have to say - educational.  I had no idea how bananas grew and what becomes of the plant that produces them.  Fascinating.  They are, each in their own way, naively patriotic.  “Pictures from a Banana Plantation” is shot in Nicaragua and gives a cooler look at the business.  Watch these three films before you settle down to the feature documentary.  The context is unsettling.


               


Two 30-second TV commercials introduce “Super abogado” Juan Dominguez as the Go-To man for personal injury claims.  In “The Fight” Mr Gertten provides present day context for his film whose story dates back to the 1970s.  At the 2009 Swedish Film Festival Q&A the director is asked about the making of his film and the response it received at the festival.  And don’t forget to check out Dan Koeppel’s essay printed on the inside jacket cover that brings matters more up to date.  Finally, don’t forget to check out Oscilloscope  trailers for the feature film, Flow; The Garden; No Impact Man.


               

 

Image: (2)~8

In true documentary fashion, director Gertten assembles footage from the worst to the best - or very nearly.  Oscilloscope’s job is to get out of their way, and this they do.  The bit rate is high enough, transfer artifacts are happily absent.  The footage shot by Gertten both in Nicaragua and in L.A. is very good: the Latin material has a ripe, vivid color palette, the Los Angeles material is sunnier.  The court video is terrible with resolution we would have been able to obtain from cell phones 20 years ago, if we had cell phones 20 years ago.  He’s hardly responsible for how it looks, but Gertten couldn’t have done without it.


               


Audio & Music: 7/8

Much of the material shot in Nicaragua is in Spanish with easy to read subtitles.  When it’s in English the subtitles disappear but you can recall them anytime without having to resort to the set-up menu.  The dialogue is always clear and sensibly shaped, though some Nicaraguan workers are difficult to make out.  In addition to Nathan Larson’s subtle and sensitive score, there is local and recorded music from time to time, mostly behind the Nicaraguan material, but the movie is far from heavily scored, as is right.  Atmospherics are nicely captured by Gertten’s sensitive microphones and mixed in proper proportion with the dialogue.


               

 

Recommendation: 7

Forget “Erin Brockovich” (I did).  Bananas!* is a more honest effort, more in the way of a spared down “A Civil Action” in its look at the tireless efforts of a legal champion and the toll it takes to confront Goliath and all his minions.  Frederik Gertten’s risky film is a must-see if for no other reason than to become acquainted with how difficult is the job of making a movie about an event that hasn’t happened yet.  The banana story and the ongoing court battles are fascinating in their own right.  The good news is that we live in a society where such efforts are permitted (Gertten’s and Dominguez’), even if thwarted by powers beyond the common man’s understanding.  It’s no wonder that paranoia comes with the territory.


               

 

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

May 2, 2011



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