Food ﬁght in Aspen: Documentarian takes on Dole for Round 2
October 2, 2012
ASPEN – The documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is an American invention: pushy, demonstrative, self-promoting. Fredrik Gertten, like Moore, is a documentarian, and he too seems a natural product of his native land. A Swede, Gertten is modest, moderately tempered and serious-minded, and it would never occur to him to put himself in front of his own camera.
Gertten, though, was unwittingly thrust into the spotlight by his own filmmaking. “Bananas!*” his 2009 film about Dole Foods’ use of pesticides in Nicaragua, caused the agriculture giant to go ballistic, unleashing a fleet of lawyers and public-relations firms against the documentary.
The battle came to an odd and heated head at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where the film was removed from competition. The festival screened “Bananas!*” but at a different theater than originally scheduled and with an official disclaimer given beforehand, informing that Dole had called into question the film’s veracity and the ethics of the lawyer who was central to the story.
“I never wanted to make a film about myself. I’m not a Michael Moore or a Morgan Spurlock,” the 56-year-old Gertten, who comes from a journalism background, said from his home in Malmö, at Sweden’s southern tip. “I had to tell this story, and it had to have me in it.”
“Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” Gertten’s quasi-sequel to “Bananas!*” shows today in the opening day of Aspen Filmfest 2012. The film follows Gertten and his “Bananas!*” colleagues as they are confronted with lawsuits, public-relations campaigns, financial pressure and ultimately severe uncertainty over whether anyone will be willing to screen the documentary and risk challenging the might of Dole.
“But the film’s not about me,” Gertten said. “I try to make films that are about bigger things than they seem, that aren’t as narrow as the subject matter.”
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The bigger themes of “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” include some subjects that seem particularly relevant at the moment: documentary films and film festivals, both of which have boomed in recent years, the decline of traditional media and the concomitant rise of the public-relations industry.
Those themes make “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” especially appropriate as an opening-day presentation for a festival loaded with documentaries. Nine of the 22 movies to be screened at Aspen Filmfest are documentaries. Some are uplifting profiles – of a Los Angeles priest who runs a gang intervention center; of Rwandan bicycle racers; of Norman Gershman, a photographer and former Basalt resident who has done extensive work documenting the Albanian Muslims who sheltered Jews from the Nazis. But several of the docs are of the more controversial variety, including “Words of Witness,” about a young female journalist covering the Arab Spring in her native Egypt (showing at noon today), and “The World Before Her,” which explores the fundamentalist/modernist divide in India.
“It’s a celebration, ultimately, of the importance of voice, of independent voice,” said Laura Thielen, the artistic director of Aspen Film (whose longtime motto is “Independent by Nature”).
Thielen pointed out that her idea of independence applied as much to narrative features as it did to documentaries, but she noted that documentaries have become an especially potent form in recent years.
“The fact is, people are paying attention to documentaries and the place they have in the world we live in,” she said. “Apparently, corporations are paying attention to them.”
Gertten had a near-impossible task with “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” The story is decidedly uncinematic; visually, the documentary consists largely of a group of anxious filmmakers, strategizing about how to handle the onslaught from Dole, and a bunch of enlarged legal documents.
But Gertten says visuals aren’t the primary element of film.
“I knew this wouldn’t look pretty,” he said. “But if the audience is there, if they want to see what happened next, they don’t care if it’s blurry. It’s about bringing your audience in and keeping them interested in the story.”
Even more than story, “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” is a film about ideas. Gertten could have personalized the project more; the face-off with Dole easily could have been spun into a David-and-Goliath tale – the world’s largest fruit-and-vegetable producer versus a Swedish documentarian.
“The intention was to make something bigger than just me and Dole,” Gertten said. “I didn’t want to do a film about fruit again. This is a film about media.”
More specifically, “Big Boys” is about the changing dynamics in how information is controlled and disseminated. Among the most enlightening points is how facts are being replaced by spin.
“We all know that traditional media is losing business, losing jobs,” Gertten said. “And P.R. is growing, recruiting people from journalism. The balance is off.”
Gertten says that the rough financial times for traditional journalism has threatened journalistic independence. In “Big Boys,” Gertten’s team finds it appallingly difficult to get American reporters to cover the story of Dole’s efforts to suppress “Bananas!*”
“If you work at a newspaper that’s losing money, you’re not so cocky anymore,” he said. “If a reporter writes a story that gets letters from lawyers, your editor will say, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ Governments and corporations know that. So by sending out cease-and-desist letters from lawyers, they can scare you.”
In “Big Boys,” Gertten isn’t so frightened about the lawyers; he was confident that his earlier film was on solid factual ground. What was truly worrisome was the public-relations campaign.
“Whenever you scare someone legally, you also include some kind of media spin, a story you sell very well,” he said. “Their story took aim at my reputation. It made me look like a bad filmmaker and a bad journalist. It was well done; it was a full-scale attack. Maybe we should applaud the job of the P.R. firm.”
With the advantage of passing time, Gertten has come to appreciate Dole’s position.
“In these days of Internet and Twitter, corporations are more stressed,” Gertten said. “There’s an extreme reputation anxiety. They are really nervous now because they can feel the rage of people coming. These brands they’ve built over the years can lose their value very quickly. They will defend it with all their means.”
“Big Boys Gone Bananas!*” also touches on differences between Western Europe and the U.S. In Sweden, Dole’s actions led to a small-scale but successful backlash against the corporation. In the U.S., Gertten had trouble even getting the media to cover the story.
“Our free-speech and free-press legislation is 10 years older even than it is in the U.S. It’s deeply rooted in our society,” he said. “And we’re a country of 9 million people. We’re used to being the little brother, and when you’re the little brother, it’s easy to identify yourself with the small guy.”
“Big Boys” had its U.S. premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize, and was released in Sweden in February. Gertten hasn’t heard a peep from Dole, which he believes shows a measure of wise restraint.
“To sue a film about freedom of speech? That tells the world you don’t like democracy,” he said. “I think the big boys should respect freedom of speech. It’s good for them, too. If they don’t like it here, they should go to North Korea and try it there.”