More soon on last night's extraordinary screening and surrounding events on the UCLA campus for Fredrik Gertten's BANANAS!* But here's the text of the statement handed out to audience members and later read by Film Independent director Dawn Hudson:
Before you watch this film, you need to know that serious questions have been raised about its credibility.
The picture you are going to see focuses on the Tellez v. Dole Food trial, which took place here in Los Angeles. The plaintiffs' case was one of many cases put together by Los Angeles lawyer Juan Dominguez and a number of Nicaraguan lawyers against Dole for the alleged harmful effects to field workers from the pesticide DBCP used in farming bananas. The case ended in a split verdict from the jury.
Subsequently, the judge who was managing all the Dole pesticide cases scheduled a trial with another group of plaintiffs recruited by the same lawyer. After completion of the film and after the film's acceptance to LAFF, the court discovered fraud on the part of the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs' lawyers in this subsequent case. Last Wednesday, June 17, 2009, the judge signed an order dismissing this second case because of fraud. The judge specifically mentions in her ruling that the witnesses you will see in the film tonight (from the Tellez trial) lied under oath, presented false employment records, and presented fraudulent evidence of sterility.
Here are two paragraphs from the 60-page order signed by the judge who presided over both trials:
...Viewing the testimony of the Tellez Plaintiffs with the benefit of the evidence of fraud collected in the Maija and Rivera cases that is now before the Court, it is now clear that those [Tellez] Plaintiffs and the evidence presented were all a product of the fraudulent enterprise the Court has found pervasive in these cases.
Logic tells us that the fraudulent conduct of the lawyers that infected the testimony under oath by plaintiffs at their trials in Los Angeles, had to to influence - if not infect - the testimonials given to the filmmakers, who translated what they heard into cinematic form. Was the chemical ever administrated by plane as the film suggests? Dole says not and points out that the plane footage was shot years after the fact. Did workers walk in water tainted by the chemical? Dole says not. Were the leaves still wet with chemical when the workers worked in the fields below them? Dole says not. Based on worker opinions, family members and a priest, the film suggests that the chemical can be fatal. Dole says otherwise and no evidence of death or any of these other allegations was presented at either trial. The court has referred Juan Dominguez to the State Bar and to criminal prosecutors. He is defending all charges against him.
None of this is reflected in the film you are about to see. As a reult, there seems to be little question that the version of reality that the film portrays does not match the reality that emerged in the courtroom.
So why is the Los Angeles Film Festival showing this film when the allegations presented have been found by an LA Superior Court judge to be based on fraudulent evidence?
This is a question that we at Film Independent and the LAFF have been wrestling with for the past several days - not the least because there is the threat of litigation if we go forward with the screening.
We are not eager to be sued. Nor, given what we know, do we believe that BANANAS!* - in its present form - presents a fair or accurate portrait of Juan Dominguez and the Tellez trial. However, we have no reason to believe that the filmmaker, Fredrik Gertten, was acting in anything but good faith whne he made his film and when he submitted it to us.
The festival believes that questions of great public interest are presented by this film and are exactly what we ought to be talking and thinking about in a responsible society. The film is not being presented for the truth of the matters asserted. It is being presented to stimulate discussion, especially and most obviously to this particular audience, what is a documentary filmmaker to do when he or she has followed a story and made a compelling documentary only to find out later that he or she was relying on unreliable evidence? In this case, a lawyer who has been found by the trial judge to have committed fraud on the court by recruiting and training his clients to present false evidence under oath and providing false employment documents and false lab reports - conduct which resulted in fraudulent testimony inside and outside of court.
Our mission at Film Independent and LAFF is to support and promote independent films and filmmakers. We can think of no better way to further this mission than to publicly air questions like these. This is why we are showing this film - out of competition - as a case study, to illuminate a timely exploration of what makes (and doesn't make) a responsible documentary.
There will be a lively panel discussion immediately after the screening with the filmmakers of BANANAS!* and other filmmakers. [*Full disclosure - I was one of the filmmakers on the post-screening panel.] We hope you stick around for the discussion.