It can be a dangerous business, being a documentary maker. The Yes Men had to leak their own movie onto the internet to get it seen, while they battled a lawsuit from the US Chamber of Commerce. Frederik Gertten’s story is a little different. In 2009 he released a documentary called Bananas!. It told the story of a group of plantation workers in Nicaragua who were trying to sue fruit corporation Dole over their use of a banned pesticide which was known to cause sterility. Bananas are a chemical-intensive crop, for reasons I’ve explained before. A third of the price of a banana pays for the pesticides, according to Gertten’s film.
The Nicaraguan workers proved the misuse of pesticides in court and won their case against Dole, but the company went into PR overdrive against the film nonetheless. It was pulled from competitions and screenings were cancelled, with Gertten instructed not even to talk about it. The media picked up Dole’s press releases without question, and journalists reported on the films’ inaccuracies without ever seeing it. So Gertten ended up in court himself. He also won, vindicating his documentary. He also kept his camera rolling throughout, and made the story into a second documentary, Big boys gone bananas.
One thing that’s interesting in this case is how the mainstream media failed to investigate the claims from Dole. Their PR department was able to create the news, branding the film a fraud on the front page of the business sections. This, says Gertten, is exactly why independent documentaries are so important: “Traditional media outlets have less money for investigative reporting and many are owned by corporate entities that have an influence on the news and its presentation and distribution. All of which means that documentary filmmakers have an even harder job to seek the truth and will continue to meet more opposition.”