The movie Bananas!* (not the early Woody Allen flick with a similar name) arrived with that asterisk attached. An asterisk usually signifies controversy ahead , or, see additional information . In this case, it’s both.
The film, which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, is a documentary about the 2007 Tellez trial. Much of it focuses on attorney Juan Dominguez and the background of the plaintiffs’ claims. Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten follows the personal injury lawyer as he flies to Nicaragua to meet the men who will become his clients. Dominguez talks to old hands who explain how DBCP (“the poison,” they call it) was applied, and together they view old movie footage that purports to illustrate the process.
Back in Los Angeles, Gertten also shadows Duane Miller as the trial lawyer prepares to take on Dole’s attorneys from Jones Day. The David-versus-Goliath contest reaches its climax when the jury finds for six plaintiffs, and then awards millions of dollars in punitive damages. Afterward, Dominguez and his staff dance in his office.
Only that wasn’t quite the end of the story. By the time the film was ready for release, Judge Victoria Chaney had held the April hearing and stated: “The fraud that I have seen here has also contaminated each and every one of the plaintiffs in the Tellez matter.”
Yet the movie’s Web site appeared unaffected by this development. Dole’s lawyers began writing letters threatening the director and the film festival with lawsuits, based not on the film (which they hadn’t been able to see) but on the trailer and promotional material on the Web site.
By the time the film was shown, Gertten had added text at the end that acknowledged Chaney’s ruling and the allegations against Dominguez. The festival had removed Bananas!* from the documentary competition and, following the screening, held a discussion about “the rights and responsibilities of activist filmmaking.” Dole still sued for defamation in July. Some of its sharpest criticism involves statements that stray far from the Tellez trial (which the film presents in a generally even-handed manner). For instance, the film opens with the funeral of a former banana worker whose death is attributed to DBCP. The main accuser is the man’s youthful son—which is surprising since the lawsuit was about sterility.
Gertten defends his film as “balanced.” In a phone interview from Sweden, he said that the lawsuit was not only “crazy” and “unfair,” it was bad publicity for Dole: “It shows them as an old, bullying corporation.” He was surprised and puzzled by the company’s reaction, adding: “I don’t understand how they think.”