(The asterisk is part of the title, if you were wondering.)
This is a fun, David vs. Goliath story. Or in this case, almost a meta-story, since it is the story of the filmmaker fighting for his rights to show and distribute his previous film BANANAS!*, which is itself a David vs. Goliath story—namely of Latin American banana plantation workers and their attorney against the global fruit behemoth Dole.
I haven’t yet seen BANANAS!* but BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* gives enough background to understand the content and context. It’s obvious why Dole felt so threatened by it, exposing as it does the company’s unjust and environmentally destructive practices.
BANANAS!* was set to premier in competition at the L.A. Film Festival in 2009, but under threats and intimidation from Dole’s lawyers, the festival’s spineless staff pulled the film from competition and moved the screening to an out of the way theater. BANANAS!* director Frederick Gerten also had to agree to allow one of the festival staff to read a heavy-handed disclaimer that sucked up to Dole, repeating baseless claims by the company even though company had never even seen the film! This was, after all, the premier.
A series of legal maneuvers followed and after nearly two years, the case was settled. I won’t tell you how.
What is more important are the lessons learned from the process. Gerten found out the hard way that most U.S. journalists are lazy, preferring to parrot Dole’s press releases casting aspersions on the film’s integrity without doing any real investigation. Or in many cases, without even seeing the film themselves.
I participate in an online documentary filmmakers’ community (D-Word) where Frederick was discussing the case as it progressed and asking for advice and support. He was flabbergasted at the complicity and laziness of American journalists. We all told him that he had to get a movie star pregnant or kill a bunch of people before he’d get noticed in this country. In his home country of Sweden, by contrast, the story of Dole using legal truncheons to suppress the film became huge news, even getting the attention of Parliament. That attention in Sweden was what eventually turned the tide in his favor.
Besides being disgusted at the soft censorship of the U.S. media in this case, I also found the L.A. Film Fest’s behavior reprehensible. The Festival bent over for Dole based on nothing more than the company’s assertions—which would later prove baseless, as the attorney depicted in the film was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. A festival as big as L.A. should have the guts to stand up for their filmmakers. Now that BIG BOYS has come out and shows the whole story, I think the festival owes Gerten a public apology and needs to make a formal, pro-filmmaker change in policy if they haven’t yet done so.
The real takeaway lesson here is that in a case like this, it is critical to own the narrative from day one and then fight like hell to keep it. Gerten and his team were caught off-guard by Dole’s aggressive press tactics. In no time, the story was about Dole’s accusations of fraud on the part of the filmmakers, instead of being about Dole’s destructive and unfair practices in Central America. It was only well into the fight that the story began to shift and shine a negative light on Dole.
Anyone taking on a multi-billion-dollar multinational company should be prepared for this kind of fight and have multiple strategies in place in advance, being prepared to fend off predictable attacks or push forward on new fronts as the situation warrants.
BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!* is a fun ride, well worth watching. It got a well-deserved standing ovation here at Sundance when I saw it.
Here’s a more extensive review on Canada.com.