Banana scandal caught on camera

Swedish documentary reveals the reality of the lives of Nicaraguan banana plantation workers

Juan José Domínguez was watching television when he saw a report on CNN about the workers of a banana plantation in Latin America trying to sue their employers, Dole Food Company. At the end of the 1970s they had been exposed to the pesticide DBCP after its being banned and even recalled by the produtcion company Dow Chemicals. The years passed and many of the workers were found to be sterile; cases of cancer were also reported.

A lawyer specialised in defending minorities, Juan, a Cuban who left for the US with his family when he was a child to go and live in Los Angeles, California, took an interest in the case and sought to find more. Five years later, even with various other American lawyer firms trying to get involved in the case, including Walter Lack, famous for having employed Erin Brockovich, Juan was the only one to manage to take the action further in the American courts.

Hearing about the story through a journalist working in Nicaragua, the Swedish documentary filmmaker Fredrik Gertten decided that this would be the perfect theme for his next film, but not just the trial alone. “The presence of American lawyers in Nicaragua wanting to get the case was the new motive to tell an old story, especially with the presence of Walter Lack, which almost turned the story Hollywood. But after getting to know Juan and research about him, I realised the possibility of telling the story in a different way, he explains.

Gertten said that a lot of the time documentaries are straight to the point, especially when dealing with Latin America, and Juan’s presence offered up the chance to explore other sides of the story during the realisation of Bananas!*. “He’s a character so full of conflict, inspiring such diverse opinions, that I wanted to show these angles in the film. What drives you? Money? For sure. The chance to be a lawyer respected by the whites? Probably something which drives him too. But it’s important to see that at the same time, he’s doing good things”, comments the director.

And it was in accompanying the lawyer between Nicaragua, in interviews with the workers, and Los Angeles, between the company and the court, that the film developed. To improve the chances of victory, Juan decides to address only the cases of infertility and focuses on the 12 people in the lawsuit against Dole. And he also calls upon Duane Miller, an experienced defence lawyer who was the first to win a case against Dow Chemicals in relation to the same pesticide.

Dole, being the biggest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, naturally brought in the best lawyers to defend itself during the case – and didn’t stop there: even having only seen the trailer for Bananas!*, they decided to sue the production of the film, demanding that Gertten would not speak about the subject anymore and that he take the website offline, besides, obviously, not releasing the film. The American giant simply didn’t consider the repurcussions its attitude would cause, leading even to a Swedish hamburger chain boycotting its products. Gertten says that he received a lot of support and attention in his country, even being invited to present the film in parlaiment. Following this, various members of parlaiment signed a petition for Dole to withdraw the charges. “There was great support, as much from the left as from right-wing parties. After the situation with the hamburger chain, the story reached the business pages of newspapers, and journalists began to question the large restaurant chains” he said.

The pressure put upon these chains was so great that Swedish freedom of speech prevailed and Dole finally abandoned the charges. Even so, the damage had already been done: Gertten had to spend $300,000 on the trial, the equivalent of around £199,000. “They caused such a big scene, writing letters to all the sponsors of the film and pressuring for the film to be removed from the LA Film Festival, where we were to premier the film as well as compete. And as the festival organisers weren’t able to stop us from taking part, they decided to screen the documentary with a warning at the start saying that the exhibited material was not true”, complains Gertten.

And the case of the workers v. Dole? “Nothing’s yet resolved”, said the director. Apart from a preliminary trial shown in the film, in which half of the workers come out victorious, Gertten confirms that not one penny has yet been paid to anyone. Dole continues its battle to reverse the verdicts and prevent futher victories for the workers, and even managed to push aside Juan and Duane’s case, acusing them of fraud. New hearings have been scheduled for May in LA. And in the meantime Dole continues to enjoy its profits of $8 billion (roughly £5.3 billion) a year.

But why the asterisk?

If you, like us, were curious about the asterisk accompanying the title of the documentary Bananas!*, here’s your answer: Rebeca Méndez, who designed the visual identity of the documentary, says that the asterisk is an engine to activate a movement: “The pesticides used to grow that golden yellow banana are possibly causing widespread disease, deformity and death among the workers and their families on the plantations in the tropical regions of our planet. The asterisk allows us to question this situation. By adding this universally understood typographic character we acquire a method to reveal unjust circumstances and affect behaviour. It has the potential to become a tool to unmask unethical business practices in any industry. That’s the idea and ambition”, she claims.

The director, Fredrik Gertten shares the same opinion: “bananas are mainly produced in an unethical way, but in a way that is really hard to change without losing profits. Both the companies and the consumers have to really want to make that change”, he says.

Gertten also wants the whole film to inspire people to look beyond what they’re eating and start questioning what’s literally behind the scenes: “I hope people who work with issues of fair trade, environment and social justice use this film. It’s a good tool: it won’t tell you what to think, but it works for starting discussion around”.

“I want the audiences to go out and ask questions to local shops or local importers of bananas”, Gertten tells us. He also thinks questions like ‘Are these bananas sprayed?’ and ‘What happened to the workers?’ can be incorporated into people’s routine. “You don’t need to be a biologist – it’s easy having those insights after watching the movie. Especially because the most important thing for me, when making Bananas!* was to show the faces of people who work everyday to bring bananas to the rest of the world. I wanted the viewers to really see them”.

So, are your bananas pesticide-free? In fact, DBCP is banned and out of the market by now, but that doesn’t mean other pesticides aren’t being sprayed on the bananas you eat. Bananas are approximately 1% of local shops’ turnover, and that percentage goes up to around 10% when considering fruits and vegetables. It’s one of the most lucrative products.

Big companies like Dole need the bananas to be almost genetically the same, meaning colour, size, shape etc. It’s very hard to produce bananas in big quantities without pesticide usage, so mass production never ends up being the best you can get. Gertten agrees: “Organic bananas also demand more of the production and won’t be more than 4% of the production of Dole, for example, which is why buying fair trade is the best solution”, he concludes. JD

will be screening at the ICA on April 16 – 18, 21 – 22, 24 – 25, at various times.
£9 / £8 Concessions / £7 ICA Members
The Mall – SW1Y 5AH • 020 7930 3647

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