David-vs.-Goliath docu “Bananas!*” arrives with an asterisk in its title, and though the caveat presumably is intended to make auds consider the Nicaraguan plantation workers who blame Dole for their myriad medical conditions, it might just as well represent the disqualifier that accompanied the pic’s Los Angeles Film Festival premiere: “The film is not being presented for the truth of the matters asserted,” but rather as “a case study.” In that form, Swedish helmer Fredrik Gertten offers a front-row seat to a landmark “Erin Brockovich”-style trial, only to have fresh evidence taint his protagonist, underdog lawyer Juan Dominguez, after production wrapped.
Originally intended for international television broadcast, the film could actually benefit from the fresh exposure, provided Gertten is prepared to rework the material (so far, he has added only new title cards explaining that the court is charging Dominguez with fraud in a related lawsuit). As it currently stands, “Bananas!*” follows Dominguez’s first trial, Tellez vs. Dole Food, which centers on the company’s continued use of the pesticide DBCP after Dow Chemical recalled related products in 1977, when many California factory workers exposed to the substance were found to be sterile.
The film opens with the funeral of yet another former plantation worker in a Nicaraguan community where locals associate their cancers, miscarriages, birth defects and infertility with their work harvesting bananas. Sensing an opportunity to support their cause, L.A. lawyer Dominguez (a ubiquitous presence in the city, with his “Accidentes” billboards) flies down to meet the San Pablo Plantation workers, assembling a dozen of them in a class-action suit against Dole.
Gertten holds no illusions about Dominguez’s motives. The case could make history, marking the first time Third World agricultural workers are heard in U.S. court, and set precedent, allowing him to sue on behalf of the many other Chinandega locals awaiting their day in court. But while Dominguez may be an advocate for impoverished workers, the footage makes it clear he’s not to be mistaken as a kindred spirit. Whether he’s showing off his red Ferrari F430 or smoking a cigar while pondering his legacy, there are aspects of hubris to the Cuban-born lawyer’s success (BMW Mini-driving chief litigator Duane C. Miller, by contrast, comes across as considerably less flamboyant).
The film’s ostensible villain — and there can be little question that Gertten wants auds to question multinational corporations’ treatment of their workers abroad, no matter what the field — is Dole chief operating officer David DeLorenzo, who appears only as a witness in the trial. But even without interviews featuring Dole’s side of the story, “Bananas!*” is quite balanced, airing the opening and closing arguments of both sides.
The problem with the film is less in the accusations of fraud that have since surfaced against Dominguez (the seeds are there in the docu, which shows defense attorney Rick McKnight refuting a fair number of bogus claims in court) than in the intensely legal-focused nature of Gertten’s approach. We see Dominguez coaching the plaintiffs on how to appear sympathetic to a jury, but never feel the same connection with the Nicaraguan workers depicted in the film, beyond the rustic guitar music provided in solidarity with their cause.
Though workers’ rights violations persist around the world, the infraction in question feels dated. The DBCP use itself dates back more than three decades, and the only footage of the conditions described hails from an old movie (“Bananeras,” directed by Yamiro Lacago), which better represents the kind of workplace expose “Bananas!*” purports to be. Instead, the docu functions primarily as a courtroom drama, omitting key details auds need to follow the complex case, including information on when Dole finally switched to DBCP-free pesticides.
Production values make for an incredibly polished film, though co-writer and editor Jesper Osmund probably has more work ahead. A nifty logo treatment (in which a cropduster flies over, forming the word “Bananas!*” in a cloud of pesticide) represents one of the many images Dole deems misleading.