The very best kind of David and Goliath stories are the ones where the David in question eventually wins out. It’s only natural to root for the underdog in this kind of story, however in his battle against fruit giant Dole Foods, victory never feels completely assured for Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is an autobiographical documentary about Gertten’s protracted moral and legal fight to get his 2009 doc Bananas!* released. That’s right, the film is essentially a documentary about a documentary, with the director of both movies becoming the central character in his own story. In the face of overwhelming adversity Gertten constructs a self-affirming story about the responsibility of truth, a battle that could only really be won in the telling of the tale.
Bananas!* – the film at the centre of the film – alleged that banana-producer Dole Foods knowingly used pesticides in Nicaragua that caused sterility amongst the plantation workers who farmed the fruit. Gertten travelled to the South American country to try to tell the worker’s story and to document the lawsuits that ensued. The reported impropriety by Dole and the lengthy legal fight the followed between the company and its employees should have been Gertten’s first indication that the fruit conglomerate was not to be trifled with. As the Swedish filmmaker started submitting the finished film to festivals, he began to get wind that Dole was unhappy with the prospect of the movie being screened publicly and was considering legal action against the small Swedish production company – and anyone who distributed or screened the film. What ensued – and what Gertten documents in his film – was a campaign by a multi-national corporation to silence an independent filmmaker who had painted that company in a bad light. Dole attempted to block the film’s release at various film festivals on the grounds that movie contained “patent falsehoods” and defamed the company.
All things considered, Gertten does a fairly good job of making Dole’s case against him extremely clear. His objectivity is impressive considering that for most of the film Dole holds the hammer of financial ruin in the form of a lawsuit above the heads of he and his colleagues. At times, so effective is Dole’s campaign calling the director a liar and charlatan, that audiences may even begin to have their doubts about Gertten. The Swedish director just wants the banana worker’s story to be told, but even he begins to doubt his cause as he moves from one crisis to another. He’s not a perfect character and it’s certainly clear who’s side he’s on, but Gertten repeatedly puts his money where his mouth is during the course of the film by laying everything on the line so that the truth can be told. The fact that he never comes off as self-righteous or plays the victim card for sympathy is as much a testament to Gertten’s convictions as it is to his abilities as a filmmaker. The director could have played it bleeding heart the whole way and won his audience over, but he never does. It’s a surprisingly sincere self-portrayal.
As the person at the centre of the film, is Gertten the most objective person to tell this tale? Probably not. But at the time of filming – facing international legal battles and fights with film festivals – he was literally the only person who could tell this story. He might be accused of painting his own prior work in a more positive light that in deserves – it may have documented moral and legal wrongs, but was Bananas!* really any good? Still, whatever the shortcomings of his previous work may have had, Gertten more than proves himself a capable and compelling filmmaker with Big Boy Gone Bananas!* While the ending may be predictable (he did get to make the movie after all), it’s always heartening to see a little guy triumph over a big bad.