Two stories this week - one in the Los Angeles Business Journal and another in the NY Times - have stirred the pot in a controversy surrounding the forthcoming documentary, BANANAS!*. The stories question the underlying truthfulness of the film, directed by internationally respected filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, particularly whether protagonist/lawyer Juan Dominguez perpetrated a fraud against both the legal system as well as the filmmakers.
Tonight, a publicist for LAFF confirmed to us that the film - announced as one of seven in this year's documentary competition - has been pulled from the competition line-up. The move was described as a mutual decision between fest and filmmakers. The film will still play at the festival - despite an apparently agressive campaign by Dole Food Co., the international food conglomerate that bears the role of villain in the film, to have a judge block the film from screening.
BANANAS!* is now billed as "A Case Study" on the LAFF website, with added paragraphs describing a newly-added post-film discussion:
What happens when a story continues to evolve after the shooting stops? This case study and screening will explore the relationship between documentary filmmaking, objective and subjective point of view, as well as the rights and responsibilities of activist filmmaking."
[Full disclosure - Our own film, CONVENTION, is screening at LAFF in the documentary competition this year and we share a publicist - David Magdael - with the filmmakers from BANANAS!*]
At it's heart, BANANAS!* seems to be a classic David v. Goliath story. As described on the website of Gertten's WG Films:
However, back in April - according to the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog, at least two cases filed by Dominguez against Dole were thrown out of court:
But this was no ordinary dismissal. Judge Victoria Chaney tossed the suits after concluding that Nicaraguan attorneys and Los Angeles plaintiffs lawyer Juan Dominguez recruited fraudulent plaintiffs, allegedly coaxing them to fabricate their work histories. “What occurred here is not just fraud on the court but blatant extortion of defendants”."
The WSJ's Law Blog goes on to note that Dole had been found liable in cases involving thousands of plaintiffs, with another 16,000 filing suit in the US against the food giant. Previously, while the case as still before Judge Chaney, the Law Blog reported that Dole lawyers had argued that Dominguez coached witnesses and falsified evidence:
From here, it appears that Dole argued that Judge Chaney should block the screening of BANANAS*! at LAFF, a request that - according to a letter posted today on the film's website - the judge denied. Spurned by the court, Dole allegedly tried to bully the filmmakers as well as the festival into submission:
As they were unsuccessful with Judge Chaney, Dole’s lawyers started writing letters to us, our US partner ITVS, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the LA Film Festival’s corporate sponsors, demanding that we ‘cease and desist’ plans to screen the film on June 20 at the Festival, and anywhere else in the world.
Dole’s team is now moving on to yet another strategy and have contacted the Swedish Consulate in LA and the Swedish Ambassador to the US in Washington, asking them to help stop the film.
To date they have succeeded in getting the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) to pull out of ‘co-hosting’ the film’s opening night at the Festival. However, a lawyer from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher (Dole's lawyer in the case) serves on the board of directors of the LAFLA."
Responding to the stories in the LA Business Journal and the NY Times Media Decoder blog, the filmmakers and their publicist have noted that neither Dole, its lawyers nor the writers for either paper (nor your humble blogger) have seen the film. But still the headlines on each - "The Big Slip Up" and "Documentary...Becomes Case Study in Truthfulness" - cast a shadow over the film and spurred discussion on documentary online bulletin boards over the responsibilities of the filmmakers.
And now the decision made this week to pull the film from competition at LAFF and highlight the film & discussion as a special spotlight screening.
The film debuts next Saturday, June 20, at UCLA's James Bridges Theater.