Sunday 16 September 2012

From the archive: "Bananas!*"

The punctuation in the title of the decidedly fruity documentary Bananas!* is a signifier of both incredulity and provisionality. Swedish director Fredrik Gertten's film begins as a conventional David-and-Goliath anti-corporate tale, as a group of Nicaraguan banana farmers made sterile by crop-spraying chemicals file a class-action lawsuit against Dole and their petrochemical suppliers Dow; then, like the fruit of the title, it throws us for a curve. The plaintiffs' lawyer Juan Jose Domínguez is a personal injury specialist residing in La-La land: introduced in advert form, staring out at us from the back of a Los Angeles bus and then again in physical form, gazing wistfully at passing ambulances, he's later observed sipping tea from the finest china and revving around town in a shocking pink Ferrari.

Dominguez was no trial lawyer - he's obliged to watch proceedings from a live webfeed in his office, scrabbling for a pen to write down the figures being mooted by way of compensation - and it shows: four of his key witnesses would contradict their own initial depositions, while the case was so hastily and shambolically prepared that Dole's defence lawyers could break the news to one plaintiff that he wasn't, in fact, sterile while he was sitting on the witness stand. What soon becomes apparent is that to push for a win - and the big bucks that come with that - Dominguez and his team may just have juked the stats; the result is that the plaintiffs' claims are still being argued over, Dominguez (whose billboards get noticeably bigger as the film goes on) is facing fraud allegations, the film has been pulled from several festivals (at Dole's insistence), and we have an asterisk in the title that suggests no-one's quite done with this story yet.

Gertten makes a conscious effort to present us with all the facts in the public domain, however much these might go against the standard crusader-documentary grain: even those viewers in the anti-corporate camp might be moved to conclude that while there is a case to be made against Dole, it's not this one, as assembled by these people. An uneasy yet fascinating tangle, then - something like a season's worth of Damages, only with extra potassium and dibromochloropropane - Bananas!* raises unusually pointed questions about exploitation and responsibility, both on the part of the legal establishment prepared to win a case by any means (in Dominguez's blunt rhetoric, "every death is another victory") and about filmmakers ready to air (presumably confidential) testimony about the banana workers' sexual dysfunction, and to use their sterility case, as a means to an end. Perhaps only a non-American filmmaker would dare to be so frank in laying bare the inner workings of the U.S. justice system.

(April 2010)
A sequel, Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, opens in selected cinemas this Friday.

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