An invite-only screening of Big Boys Gone Bananas!* launched the refurbished and revamped Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto last night, with the film’s director Fredrik Gertten (pictured) telling the audience in a post-screening Q&A that the documentary community must do more to protect its own.
The film, which had its world premiere at IDFA last autumn and its U.S. premiere at Sundance in January, follows Gertten and his team as they face a lawsuit from banana giant Dole over their 2009 doc Bananas!*
The 2009 film followed the events surrounding a trial that took place in LA in which Nicaraguan banana workers sued Dow Chemical and Dole for its use of a pesticide that purportedly caused sterility (Dole signed an agreement in October 2011 with law firm Provost & Humphrey to settle five lawsuits in the U.S. and 33 in Nicaragua concerning the alleged exposure to the pesticide). Upon the film’s release, Dole sued the filmmakers for defamation.
As public pressure from various groups and politicians in Sweden mounted, Dole dropped its lawsuit. The filmmakers then filed an anti-SLAPP motion to ensure that the banana company could not re-sue the filmmakers in the future. An LA Superior Court ruled in the filmmakers’ favor, ordering Dole to pay attorneys fees and costs of nearly US$200,000 in the process.
Big Boys, told from the filmmakers’ viewpoint, follows the process of those legal battles and shows the filmmakers facing heavy skepticism from North American media outlets. In the film, it is only after Swedish politicians throw their support behind the doc and begin to criticize Dole that the tide begins to turn in favor of the director.
Addressing industry delegates via Skype after the Bloor premiere, Gertten said that when Bananas!* first launched, “even people in our own documentary community believed that I had f****d up.”
The new film, he added, is “very much about the media” and what he perceives as failings of journalism. However, he also turned his fire on the documentary industry, suggesting that “we, as a community, have to do better when the s*** hits the fan.”
He pointed to fellow director Joe Berlinger and the battles he had faced with his oil doc Crude, and suggested that some sort of fund should be set up to protect doc directors who face lawsuits from giant multi-national corporations.
He reiterated the importance of documentaries in giving a voice to the voiceless, such as the Nicaraguan workers featured in the original film. “Their voices don’t get heard, that’s why documentary films are so important – that’s why Hot Docs is so important.”
Gertten also added that his team had sold the TV rights to the original Bananas!* to an unnamed U.S. broadcaster for some $150,000, but that – three years on – the doc still has not been broadcast. He also added that Big Boys had secured a distributor in Canada, but did not say which one.
For Hot Docs itself, meanwhile, the opening event was a well-received success. The Canadian festival announced last July that it would be teaming up with Blue Ice Group to take control of the century-old venue formerly known as the Bloor Cinema (pictured above).
Under a joint venture agreement, Hot Docs as leaseholder assumes responsibility for managing and programming the venue year round, in addition to using it for its annual spring festival and monthly Doc Soup screening series.
As previously reported, the organization has hired Kino Smith president Robin Smith to program the cinema and will play a range of recent and classic docs over the next two months. Films with featured theatrical runs in March and April include Alex Stapleton’s Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel; Constance Marks and Philip Shane’s Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey; Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s Eames: The Architect and the Painter; Errol Morris’ Tabloid; Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Fightville; David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model; and Jeanie Finlay’s Sound It Out.
Meanwhile, the Saturday afternoon ‘Essential Docs’ strand will showcase classic documentaries, with March and April playing host to Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March; Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man; Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line; Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings; and Allan King’s A Married Couple.