We've been thinking a lot about the issues raised by the developments surrounding Fredrik Gertten's BANANAS!*, specifically the revelations of potential fraud in the case and intimidation and threats by Dole Food Co.
As we see it, the filmmaker made a film and the facts on the ground changed after the filmmaker completed his film and after it was accepted by the Los Angeles Film Festival as a world premiere.
And, as far as we can ascertain, the filmmaker believes that his film is finished - he made the film that he believed to be true based on what he witnessed. Despite the fact that a different film - perhaps a better film - could be made now that events have changed, the filmmaker would like to close the book on BANANAS!* and perhaps make a second, new film - a sequel that may or may not debunk the case made in the first film - to deal with the changing reality.
The question on the table is - is this enough?
Let's throw out the surrounding circumstances for a moment. Let's assume that Dole Food Company is guilty. That they have willingly - and with malice - caused workers in Latin America to be sterile by extensive exposure to pesticides. Let us also assume that their behavior in the last few weeks, their unconscionable harrassment of a filmmaker and an arts organization (as well as said organization's sponsors and parents) is a violation of both freedom of speech as well as a smoke-screen erected to change the subject.
Let us assume the worst of Dole.
Now that we have that out of the way, what is the responsibility of filmmaker Fredrik Gertten? Not to Dole, or even to the Los Angeles Film Festival, which, it seems to us, has been heroic in its decision to screen his film, despite threats of lawsuits and injunctions from Dole, but to the audience? What is the responsibility of a nonfiction filmmaker to leave his audience with the closest approximation of truth?
Because - and, again, in our opinion - this is what separates fiction from nonfiction: a sense of a greater truth.
We talk often here about a rejection of rules for nonfiction filmmaking, the belief that one can use any tool to construct a film. What we may not be so specific about is that these tools should - if one is to call oneself a documentary or a nonfiction film - be utilized to approximate that greater truth. This does not mean - particularly in some instances (such as Guy Maddin's MY WINNIPEG) - that fictional or mythical elements must not be used in the construction of a nonfiction narrative. In fact, this is something that we welcome. But our opinion is that the filmmaker should leave his or her viewer with some sense of truth.
As far as we can tell, Gertten argues that he should be welcome to leave his audience with the truth as he saw it a year ago. His film, he argues, should be allowed to convey the truth as he understood it before new events came to light.
We can't sign on to this argument, primarily because it appears that the truth that he understood is not only no longer valid, it may in fact be toxic.
The lawyer at the center of this case is found to have - and by found we mean to say that it is the current ruling by a US judge and thus the current legal standard (until it is overturned or proven incorrect) - committed a crime not only against the legal system, but also against other alleged victims in the case. As the judge correctly notes in her just-released 60-page treatise:
So if we are to stipulate that Dole Food Co. committed illegal and unconscionable acts - as is detailed and admitted to in Gertten's film by the testimony of Dole's own executive - we must also note that plaintiff's lawyer Juan Dominguez is (if the charges are true) also culpable in the persecution of Nicaraguans who may have been affected by Dole's unethical use of the pesticide. If Dominguez did - as the judge in the case states - fraudulently coach witnesses and falsify documents, then he is not some unfortunate dupe. He is villianous. His alleged criminals actions will cause Dole to escape punishment for any real crimes they may have committed.
How then, is a film that glamourizes Dominguez so different from other mis-reported stories? How can we criticize Judith Miller for believing only one side of a story, for sticking to that story even as the facts on the ground changed, and laud a filmmaker for staunchly sticking to his guns, even as his film (even if not propagandistic) remains incorrect.
It seems to us that Gertten hopes that his film, and the controversy that surrounds it, should be allowed out into the world and that it should be for others - critics, writers, journalists, film festivals - to place the film in the proper context.
After thinking about this topic for several days, we have come to disagree.
We don't believe that it is responsible to the charge of "a greater truth" for a filmmaker to abdicate responsibility in this area to unknown others.
So when does that responsibility kick in?
What if, for example, this new information about Dominguez had come to light after BANANAS!* had had a theatrical run? Would it not be the in the interest of the filmmaker (not to mention the DVD distributor or broadcaster) to update the story to reach the greater truth?
It seems, at least according to statements made by Gertten and his colleagues Saturday night, that because of rapidly changing events - and because of the judge's ruling regarding Dominguez - AND because it would be extremely difficult for the filmmakers to re-interview Dominguez, that those who made the film would prefer to release the film as is.
And we can understand that desire. Who, after all, wants to open up an edit timeline that has been finally - after weeks and months or work - been put to bed. (The very thought of it gives me shivers.)
But, in our opinion, the alternative is worse. The alternative is to present a film that - while most certainly not a polemic or a propaganda piece - only presents part of a truth.
And while others can get lathered up about Dole's record of bad behavior - and their lawyers' truly despicable behavior in threatening Gertten and the Los Angeles Film Festival - it should not detract from the most basic question - why make a film in the first place?
Whether the answer that question is to pursuade, to educate or to entertain, the audience for nonfiction films should - at the very least - be allowed to expect a level of greater truth. And in the case of BANANAS!*, it appears that the filmmakers would like to argue that the greater truth is that Dole Food Co. has done wrong. And judging by the reaction of some in the audience on Saturday night, there are at least some who are willing to sign onto this argument, who are willing to condemn Dole (please note that their actions in threatening the Los Angeles Film Festival have done them no favors) and accept the fraudulent and potentially criminal behavior by Dominguez (and mischaracterization of his actions in the film) in the interim.
But - in our opinion - the filmmakers should not cloak themselves in the embrace of the idealogically like-minded.
In the documentary community, we are, it becomes increasingly apparent, occasionally enslaved by some who have pledged an unquestioning loyalty to a certain kind of social justice perspective. In this case, the anger from some on the left and presumed guilt of Dole obscures anything else - Dominguez' alleged crimes, the filmmakers responsibility, a film festival's due dilligence. Failing to recognize the complexities of the case at hand - particularly in some effort to argue that Dole's bad actions excuse all else - is an exercise in naval-gazing. How can you reach an intelligent audience - particularly as younger generations are taught to question or distrust media - if you are so willing to let others settle the score for you?
The filmmakers of BANANAS!* have made a good film that would have to be contextualized by others. They could make a great film that speaks for itself.
[Full disclosure - our own film, CONVENTION, is screening at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival and we share a publicist with the filmmakers from BANANAS!* CONVENTION is eligible for the documentary competition prize, while BANANAS!* was pulled from competition in the midst of this controversy. I was invited by Film Independent to participate in a discussion about these issues following the first screening of BANANAS!* on Saturday night along with filmmakers Eddie Schmidt and Joan Churchill. I have served the past two years as a juror for the Truer Than Fiction Award at Film Independent's Spirit Awards.]