|Filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and his war with DOLE|
A Conversation With Fredrik Gertten
Director of BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*
My full **** review, first published during
the 2012 edition of the Toronto Hot Docs Festival
is reprinted just below this feature story/interview.
By Greg Klymkiw
The feelings engendered by the great paranoid thrillers of 70s American Cinema are alive and well again - crackling with the same terror, dread and mounting odds against one man or a handful of individuals who are fighting oppressive, almost dystopian, virtually Orwellian dark forces.
The difference, though, is that our central figure is NOT Warren Beatty in Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View, stumbling upon a corporation devoted to political assassination.
Our protagonist is NOT Donald Sutherland's Department of Health bureaucrat in Philip Kaufman's brilliant re-working of Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers where under the creepy spire of San Francisco's Trans-America tower he battles the ultimate scourge upon the human race.
Nor are we watching Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein in All The President's Men (Pakula again), skulking about dark underground parking lots in search of the truth behind the Watergate conspiracy.
The 70s paranoid thriller has, in fact, been reborn in Fredrik Gertten's stunning documentary feature Big Boys Gone Bananas!* and in spite of the title, and though the movie features absurdity of the most extreme kind, we are also not dealing with a Will Ferrell comedy.
This is a straight-up mystery thriller. That said, it's a true story. And what we see is what was actually happening to the film's central figure - Gertten himself - a documentary filmmaker embroiled in the dark, nasty manipulations of an evil corporate entity.
Fredrik Gertten, filmmaker, does not, however, consider himself an activist or a revolutionary or a political filmmaker. In a Skype conversation with the Swedish filmmaker, he made it very clear to me that his primary agenda is to tell good stories - END of story.
"My whole job as a documentary filmmaker was to get the feelings I experienced into my film," said Gertten. "Living the story intimately - to get these personal feelings out to my audience - this was the big challenge of doing the film. Evoking feeling should be the challenge of doing any film."
But this is not just any film. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is a movie created out of the struggle which ensued after Gertten finished his documentary BANANAS!*, the harrowing tale of the Dole corporation's exploitation of Nicaraguan fruit workers. "This is not necessarily a controversial thing," Gertten asserts. Perhaps not, but there is controversy inherent in both works. In fact, beyond the Battle Royal between the poisoned migrant workers in the first film and the truth-seeker under attack in the second - both parties caught in a fierce struggle with one of America's hugest multinational corporations - I truly believe that we have in Fredrik Gertten something that all filmmakers should aspire to.
Gertten tells both stories with head-on commitment, but not the sort one normally associates with documentary filmmaking. "Filmmaking without passion is very boring even if the message is the right one," said Gertten. "I never considered myself as a political filmmaker or a campaign filmmaker or an activist. I might be a political person or an activist when I'm not on the job making films, but this is the thing - making a film is my job and I want to make a film that can travel into hearts and minds and that's something different. I never think 'Oh, I'm going to do something controversial.' That would be a stupid setup. I want to tell a good story. And of course I want to make this story hit people emotionally in ways that people can reflect upon their own lives and life itself."
Much as I think he would wince at the very thought, I personally consider Gertten's two most recent films to be acts of heroism. Both are great pictures and yes, they both tell great stories, but Gertten's stellar work as a storyteller is proof positive that all artists have the potential to be heroes.
Whether Gertten wants to believe it or not, he is to me, and no doubt many others, a hero.
The films work on two levels. Firstly, they're both supremely entertaining and represent filmmaking of the highest order. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, they are - pure and simple - GREAT STORIES well told that have had, and will continue to have the power to effect change for the better.
Once Gertten completed BANANAS!*, he was poised to launch it to the world in competition at the L.A. Film Festival, but Dole reared its ugly head and not only sued the filmmaker, then copied their legal position to the film festival and all its corporate sponsors - including the L.A. Times. Scandalously, The Times published a horrendously slanted full page business article that presented ONLY Dole's point of view. More slanted media news reports followed and Gertten found himself in a position where the film festival was bowing to all the pressure that was being manipulated and fully orchestrated by Dole.
Gertten made his way to Los Angeles and decided to have cameras running in order to potentially capture Dole serving him with a summons. "A filmmaker is always making film," said Gertten. "As a documentary filmmaker, anytime I have a camera running, there is the potential to make a movie."
Personally, I was appalled that a film festival would allow itself to be swayed by Dole, a corporate giant so willing to go to any lengths to suppress the truth about its disgusting practices - nefarious activities which resulted in knowingly using a pesticide that caused sterility in the Nicaraguan workers.
During our chat, however, Gertten seemed far more charitable than I on this matter and suggested the festival was not necessarily questioning his work or integrity as a filmmaker, but in believing the Dole arguments wished not only to protect themselves, but Gertten - believing that he had been duped by his subjects into presenting blatant falsehoods as fact.
Honest to Christ!
I can't ever imagine being so gracious. I was even more appalled that all the major corporate sponsors of the film festival were swallowing Dole's rancid geysers of spurious cum so willingly, so greedily - especially since the sponsors included many leading lights of the entertainment business who should have been more than happy to rally in Gertten's defence.
Gertten, however, revealed to me that the corporate sponsors weren't all against him and notes that it was a clear 50/50 split in terms of those who wanted to back him and those who didn't.
As far as I'm concerned, the 50% who didn't support Gertten at the time are the lowest, bottom feeding scum - or in the words of the late, great, Johnny Cash - they're lower than a "dirty, old, egg-sucking hound."
The actions of Dole and the cowardice of the powers-that-purported-to-be, resulted in a cowardly compromise undertaken by the festival. They withdrew Gertten's film from official competition and presented it in the least flattering venue - along with a strong disclaimer presented by the festival director prior to the screening.
One of the things I was most curious about in this process was the fact that Gertten was able to fight Dole with the assistance of a powerful litigation lawyer. The cost of fighting such dark forces would normally be so cost-prohibitive to any independent filmmaker that Gertten admits to being thankful that Bananas!* had insurance in place for just such an occurrence.
Most people outside the film industry (and certainly even young, aspiring filmmakers) are completely unaware of the scourge/blessing called Errors and Omissions insurance. I personally detest that it even became a requirement of making films when it really reared its ugly head in the late 80s. Worst of all, it became de rigueur because of America - a country that increasingly became one of the most litigious empires in the world. In most countries outside North America - even to this very day - Errors and Omissions is not a requirement to secure production financing, distribution and broadcast sales. Alas, if one wants any penetration into the North American marketplace, it is an absolute must.
For me, Errors and Omissions was just another excuse to add more costs to making movies and to put money into the greedy pockets of lawyers and insurance companies. E&O is not cheap. The insurance is term-based, needs to be renewed at various intervals during the entire life of a film and in order for a company to even grant it to you, they will usually require that an approved list of lawyers examine every aspect of your proposed film to ensure there is nothing remotely litigious.
To my mind, E&O insurance is already an attack against free speech - an act of censorship that occurs even before a movie is made.
Worst of all, the insurance carries ridiculous deductibles. I asked Gertten if Bananas*! was especially difficult to clear for E&O. Surprisingly, the lawyers gave his film a clean bill of health with no exclusions whatsoever. The deductible, however, was utterly ludicrous. It was a standard $10,000 USD. In the scheme of things, this seems a low price to pay for all the legal fees if you do get sued, but ask any independent filmmaker how easy it is to come up with $10-grand to secure said legal services and you'll get another story altogether.
Like any insurance, once you make a claim - any claim - this affects one's future ability to get insurance at a reasonable cost and with a less usurious deductible. Gertten admits that securing affordable Errors and Omissions insurance on Big Boys Gone Bananas!* proved to be a huge ordeal. It eventually worked out, but the journey to even secure it was most arduous.
Thankfully it did.
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is an important film!
HOWEVER, at the risk of turning audiences off and fucking Mr. Gertten over even more than he has been, allow me to stress that Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is must-see ENTERTAINMENT!!! It's thrilling, scary, absurdly funny and on a par with any of the aforementioned kick-ass 70s thrillers.
"I aim my films at everybody," said Gertten. "The problem is, of course, that if my films are running on CBC or other such broadcast outlets, people will see the short pitch and then say, 'Oh, that sounds boring.'" And yeah, the short pitches for Bananas!* (Nicaraguan fruit-pickers exploited by a corporation) and Big Boys. . . (filmmaker fights a corporation for the right to free speech) are definitely the stuff to turn off everyone but the already-converted.
Telling stories that carry such weighty issues can easily get lost in the shuffle and is always a challenge to get them seen by wider audiences. Gertten adds: "I've gotten amazing reviews for my film, but many of those same reviews will say 'This is a very important film'. Who wants to see an important film? People want to be entertained. Reviewers tend to underline the "important" stuff instead of talking about the storytelling - which is a bit frustrating."
Here though, I'll briefly thump my own tub, by revealing Gertten's feelings about my written assessment of his film when it first appeared during the Hot Docs 2012 Film Festival.
"I liked your review because you were passionate yourself when you wrote it," said Gertten.
I interjected by saying I wasn't only passionate when I reviewed his film, but pissed right off. One and the same thing, I guess, but nothing makes my blood boil more than corporate, oligarchical steam-rolling, the more fascistic elements of political correctness, censorship and the squashing of free-speech.
"Well," added Gertten, "Like I said, I get so many top grade reviews but many of them are very boring texts. I think that's a crisis for documentary films that the reviewers want to be so on the course with the subject matter rather than on the filmmaking. When people read that a film is important, they will sometimes even take that at face value. A critic tells a little bit about the story, goes blah-blah-blah about the issues and it ends up with people coming up to me and saying: 'Oh this was a very important film! Congratulations Fredrik!' I'll then ask, 'Have you seen the film?' And the response is often, 'Oh no, not yet, but you did a great job.' People forget that a film is not a tweet, its not an article, it's not a thesis or an op-ed. A film is actually an emotional experience. If you do a film well, it stays with you. And that's why we as filmmakers work so hard to tell the story."
Of course, the best stories, at their root ARE simple. It's the simplicity which yields layers of complexity. It's the twists and turns a story takes from a very simple premiss that delivers complexity. One of the things that always drives me crazy in either young filmmakers, or any filmmakers who have an agenda of commitment rather than the goal of a story well told, is that too many films - documentaries especially, but also dramas or even experimental works - have NOTHING but the layers. The layers are the "cool shit", but if they're not hanging from a solid structure, all you get are the layers.
The math is simple.
Layers - simple, solid structure = Shit.
Gertten essentially concurs. "Bananas!* is a very complex story, but the bottom line for me is very simple - we see the faces of the people who pick our bananas and we understand they have been suffering and now we wonder, 'What banana should I buy?' Big Boys Go Bananas!* is also a very complex story, but in the end, the bottom line is very simple - 'Are you in favour of democracy? Are you in favour of free media?' Well then, don't sue filmmakers. Don't suppress them with your P.R. machine. If you want to be a part of society, then respect the rules of society. This goes for any corporation. You can't talk about democracy and fight it at the same time - which Dole did with me."
But given - especially in North America - how media and journalism have become mere propagandistic mouthpieces for corporate powers, government and, if you will, the New World Order, I'm somewhat disheartened that audiences are getting used to a new brand of reportage and storytelling. I asked Gertten if he believes audiences even want to be told the truth.
"That's a very special question," he responds. He thinks on it a moment and then asserts: "Of course! I think people want the truth, but they also want to be entertained and that goes for all of us. Sometimes we get entertained by fake stories and a lot of stuff in the media right now is fake. That creates a very special challenge for filmmakers - especially documentary filmmakers. If we want to do films that can reach out to a mass audience, we have to make films that are as well done as traditional narrative-based dramas and all the other stuff. It has to be exciting. We also have to do films that are reaching out to people. On the other hand, I don't think that people are stupid and I know when people see my films nobody is left out."
Gertten asserts and reiterates that his films inspire more than "a few experiences that will stay with people. When they enter a grocery store they don't want to buy sprayed bananas or when they open a newspaper they ask if an op-ed has been planted by a P.R. firm. If my films can make that happen within people then that's great. But they have to see the film. It's not enough to read a tweet."
As much as I've compared Gerrten's contemporary documentary films to the great thrillers of the 70s, he's quick to note the stereotypical pigeon-holing of documentary filmmaking that was especially prevalent in the 70s and how there are residual effects of that even today.
"You don't have to be left wing to do documentaries" he half-jokes. "People can be right wing. They can be whatever they are. You can be commerical, you can be alternative. We are, finally, professional filmmakers. Documentary is a genre. We constantly work with a narrative arc. When we edit our films we use the same language dramatic filmmakers use to tell the story. It's classical knowledge and we use it."
Before wrapping up our conversation, I had one pressing question. Given that Gertten's storytelling skills are so strong and that his documentary work excels on the level of great thrillers, does he ever imagine tackling a straight-up narrative drama?"
His response was short, sweet and definitive.
Herewith is reprint of my **** review of
BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*
that I first published online during
the Hot Docs 2012 Film Festival:
Big Boys Gone Bananas!* (2012) dir. Fredrik Gertten ****
Review By Greg Klymkiw
In the summer of 2009 I became aware of a curious case wherein Fredrik Gertten, a documentary filmmaker from Sweden (along with his producing partners) was being sued by the Dole corporate fruit bats and that the Los Angeles Film Festival had yanked his film Bananas*! out of official competition and relegated it to a special screening.
The internet media coverage I read - even at the time - seemed slanted against the filmmaker and his expose of Dole's exploitation of fruit workers in Nicaragua. Sounded to me like the Dreaded Dole Dandies were irresponsibly and knowingly using pesticides that caused sterility in numerous men working the fields.
My response to this was typical - of me! I scoured the cupboards to see if there were any cans or packages with the Dole label. Thank Christ, there were none - nor were there any fresh fruits in the fridge.
I hate throwing out food, but I would have anyway. From that day on, I have never purchased anything with Dole's name attached to it. Without knowing more than the seemingly spurious accounts in the articles about the lawsuit, I sided with the filmmaker - AGAINST Dole.
They're a corporation, after all. A multi-national corporation at that. I simply have no use for such entities. As far as I'm concerned, they're all criminals - organized criminals.
What sickened me even more than the attack by Dole upon an artist's God-Given right to free speech was the appalling behaviour of the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF). A film festival - no matter how big, small or (in the case of the LAFF) inconsequential - has a duty to ALWAYS support artists. End of story. No arguments allowed. Anyone who disagrees can crawl back into whatever pro-censorship-anti-free-speech slime pit of fascism they crawled out of. Hopefully, I won't see you in Hell as I had to renounce Satan at my Godson Illya's christening some time ago.
So, I finally saw Bananas*! two weeks ago. It's a powerful, shocking and moving film about Dole's corporate irresponsibility to its own workers. (I'll review the film under separate cover here at KFC soon.) A few days later, I watched Gertten's new picture, Big Boys Gone Bananas!* and I am so happy he made this film.
From a personal standpoint, it says and exposes the truth behind everything I believe in about American (and by extension, Canadian) imperialist corporate culture - how most governments, politicians and bureaucrats are mere pawns and puppets in "democracies" that are little more than corporate-owned totalitarian states.
That mainstream media is becoming increasingly useless.
That the notion that free speech exists is drastically diminishing.
And last, but not least, the idiotic hoops a filmmaker must go through to protect themselves from nuisance suits launched by corporate scumbags.
All of this is simply beyond the pale.
Once he was slapped with a huge lawsuit from Dole, Gertten wisely began to document his struggle on film. What he captures is borderline surreal.
He and his co-producers go into research/confab mode immediately, but are also plunged into the nightmare of the LAFF threatening not to show the film. Dole, not only brought suit against Gertten and partners, but sent their claims to the festival itself and all of its corporate sponsors. (Many of these sponsors are a Who's Who of entertainment and media power brokers - shame on all of them for not lifting a finger.)
Every single newspaper of record began running huge articles about the lawsuit - slanting everything on the side of Dole, basically reprinting Dole's press releases and most egregiously, not bothering to check sources. They were bought and paid for, no doubt.
The LAFF did the most cowardly thing of all. At first they tried to appease Dole and came up with some solutions/options for Gertten which you really need to see the film to discover. You won't believe it if you just see it here in black and white. The festival's suggested appeasements all side with Dole and essentially would force Gertten to go against everything artistic expression stands for.
When the moronic suggestions were rightly rejected, the festival pulled the movie from official competition, shoved it into a cinema far out of the festival zone and planned to read a statement regarding their cowardly stand prior to the screening.
On the night of the screening, Gertten is introduced by Dawn Hudson (who is now the CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - AMPAS - which, should speak volumes already, and if it doesn't, there's no hope for you) then-director of the festival. She invites him to take the stage. He approaches and she motions for him to speak. He balks. He's been promised that she'll read the cowardly statement before his speech to the audience. She feigns surprise, but finally gives in and reads the statement. (Do any of these cowards have any self-respect?)
She uses the word "fraudulent" to describe the film's primary subject (even though she admits this same subject is fighting this with the bar association and criminal prosecutors). Though carefully worded so that she, nor the festival are overtly questioning Gertten's credibility, it's clearly slanted to put notions in the minds of the audience that the film they're about to watch is a potential crock.
The cowardly words she mouth-pieces are:
"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. . ."
Darling Dawn, all you REALLY know is that this complex case is not over yet and that a multinational corporation is threatening to sue everyone's ass to protect its own rectal opening.
Her final words to the audience are the biggest spoonful of bull-feces-laden-sugar to help the medicine of the cowardly go down:
". . . 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."
Give me a break.
I hope Dawn Hudson is enjoying her plum job with the Academy Awards geezers. Checking out her woeful acting credits on the IMDB suggests she shifted her thespian abilities to being a shill for the interests of the Status Quo.
What follows in the film is like some kind of Kafka nightmare through the eyes of a David Lynchian dreamscape. It's unbelievably cruel, nasty and terrifying. Sometimes it's so absurd, you want to laugh. Can this really happen in a democratic society? Well, considering democracy is dead - at least in North America - the answer would be a resounding, "Yes!" Deep pockets usually equals justice.
Ultimately, to see an artist go through the legal torture inflicted upon him by Dole (and everyone on their payroll) is as stomach-turning as it is anger-inducing.
His producer, for example, gets an anonymous letter suggesting she disavow herself from Gertten and the film. It even strongly implies that "money will flow" to her future productions if she does so (also implying, she's finished if she doesn't).
Dole hires a public relations firm to contact every major journalist in the world (including a whole bunch of them in Sweden), promising one-on-one access to the Dole side of the story.
News item upon news item in every media known to man flings mud upon Gertten and places Dole on a pedestal.
People close to Gertten feel like they're under constant surveillance.
Canadian Co-producer Bart Simpson laments that even in Canada, artists would never receive the kind of media and government support Gerrten received in his home country - against Dole. As a Canadian, I can only agree.
A supposed advocate for free speech compares Gertten's expose of Dole to the most horrendous piece of Nazi propaganda, The Eternal Jew.
Bloggers, forum posters - obviously Dole plants - were writing the most damning things about Gertten and his film.
Even when things seem to be turning in his favour, Gertten has more battles to fight.
Gertten never backs down.
By the end of the film, though, I do wonder how many other artists would bother to persevere in similar circumstances? What Hell the film drags us through is disheartening - even though Gertten's first movie, after years of struggle - can now be seen.
As a filmmaker, I thoroughly commiserated with Mr. Gertten. Years earlier I'd gone through a not dissimilar nightmare over a controversial work I produced and co-wrote. My experience, while horrendous at the time, seems now like kid-stuff compared to the horrors Gertten went through.
The bottom line is that when artists are under attack, we are all under attack.
"Big Boys Gone Bananas!*" is currently in theatrical release via Kinosmith.