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Dole v. “Bananas!*”
Dole Food Corporation, the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, is expected to file a defamation lawsuit any day now. The company is irked by last weekend’s Los Angeles Film Festival screening of the controversial documentary “Bananas!*” in which film-maker Fredrik Gertten portrays a classic David and Goliath struggle.
After having allegedly been poisoned by the pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP), Nicaraguan banana plantation workers and a prominent L.A. attorney sued Dole and American chemical companies in 2007. A Los Angeles jury awarded $2.5 million in punitive damages to five workers, but the court later dismissed those damages, saying they could not be used to punish a domestic corporation for injuries that occurred only in a foreign country. Gertten’s film portrays both the court battle and the plight of third world laborers struggling against a relentless capitalist system.
“Every time a banana worker who was exposed to this chemical dies, then its one more victory for the Dole Food Corporation,” claims Los Angeles-based personal injury attorney Juan J. Dominguez, who represented the Nicaraguan plantiffs and also stars Gertten’s film. “This is bigger than just a case,” he says.
In the eyes of Dole Food Co., Gertten’s film is seriously flawed. This spring Dole investigators presented courts with evidence gathered from Nicaraguans who said Mr. Dominguez hadfalsified evidence against the corporation. Dominguez had allegedly recruited and coached plaintiffs, and outfitted them with false work histories and falsified medical lab reports. According to Dole, Dominguez also promised payouts to supposed pesticide victims.
In a letter sent to the Los Angeles Film Festival by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm representing Dole, the company attacked the film’s legitimacy and threatened retribution in no uncertain terms:
“Publication and further promotion of this self-described “court-room-thriller-documentary,” directed by Mr. Gertten and produced by WG Film AB and co-produced by ITVS, is indefensible…We demand that you immediately cease and desist making any false, defamatory statements about Dole Food Company, Inc. and any of its former or current officers or employees in connection with the film “Bananas!*” and the matters discussed therein. We also demand that you immediately remove any false statements of fact currently published on the promotional website for the film “Bananas!*” and in any other promotional material, and immediately publish, in a conspicuous manner on the film’s promotional website an unequivocal retraction of those statements. Please confirm to us in writing within five (5) business days that you have done so.
Should you move forward with plans to publicly display or distribute the documentary film “Bananas!*,” despite its obvious false and defamatory content, you will be held responsible for any and all compensatory, special, exemplary or punitive, and all other damages available under applicable law. Our clients reserve the right to take any action they deem necessary to enforce their rights, and will do so without further notice to you.”
Despite threats made by Dole attorneys, the Los Angeles Film Festival opted to go ahead and screen “Bananas!*” anyway. Reportedly at least ten people from Dole were in the audience, taking voracious notes. “The audience loved the film,” claims the Festival. “The debate was insane, but we did well. The sympathy fell on our side.”
In a Q&A session that followed the screening, “Bananas!*” film-maker Gertten defended his work: “In answer to the question of whether my film is fraudulent, I cannot see that it is. Everything I filmed is the truth and how this all played out.” Gertten also emphasized the importance that films like his serve in fueling meaningful conversations about the impact of big business on local communities. “Dole and other big corporations have all the best reasons to fight [the film]. But I think they should do that in an open debate, not by threatening a film or a film festival and a filmmaker,” he said.
Given Dole’s current legal strategy, however, it seems improbable that the company will choose engage in any sort of open or constructive dialog with stakeholders concerning the film’s broader message points. More likely, it will continue to move against free speech – deflecting criticism, discrediting opponents, defending its business practices and diminishing the film’s chance for widespread distribution.