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LAFF 09: 'Bananas' and Other Stories from South of the Border

By Tom White

Art and commerce have always made for strange bedfellows, but when big business tries to thwart art-as Dole Food Corporation did when it filed a cease-and-desist letter to Swedish filmmaker Fredrick Gertten, the Los Angeles Film Festival and its sponsors to stop the film Bananas!* from being screened, the 2009 edition of LAFF, which marked Rebecca Yelham's debut as festival director, was destined for a heady ten days. Throw in the epochal death of Michael Jackson, which literally stopped traffic in Westwood-the home of the festival and the epicenter of the King of Pop's demise-and you put the old bromide "The show must go on" in a whole new light.

Bananas!* documents a court trial, Tellez v. Dole Food, in which lawyers from California and Nicaragua filed suit against Dole on behalf of Nicaraguan field workers allegedly impacted by the pesticide DBCP used in banana plantations. The case that serves the narrative of the documentary ends in a split verdict--but the story didn't end there. In a subsequent case-there are 5,000 claims against Dole filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court--Judge Victoria Chaney, who presided over the case in the film, determined that the plaintiffs' attorney, Juan Dominquez, had committed fraud that tainted their testimonies, in this case and the one in the documentary. Hence the legal action. For more information from IDA's News on the Doc blog, click here and here.

The festival did show the film, but not in competition. It was screened as a case study to, in a statement issued by the festival, "illuminate a timely exploration of what makes (and doesn't make) a responsible documentary." Entertainment attorney Michael Donaldson moderated a panel that included filmmakers Eddie Schmidt, Joan Churchill and AJ Schnack, as well as Frederick Gertten. An attorney from Dole was also present in the audience, but did not comment.

A middle-aged man stands at a podium and speaks to a crowd in a gymnasium
Attorney Juan Dominquez, from Fredrik Gertten's Bananas!*. Courtesy of Fredrik Gertten

In light of the recent developments in the case, Gertten did add on title cards in his film to reflect that. And in his director's statement that accompanied the press materials, he averred, "Everything I filmed is the truth: It's what my cameras captured and how this all played out during this trial." But the general consensus of the panel seemed to be that the film was not complete, that a follow-up or expanded version was in order. "The film is not a full-on propaganda piece," Schnack acknowledged. "But is it enough to put tags at the end?" One audience member asked if Gertten had interviewed anyone from Dole. He hadn't. "I pick a point of view and I follow a point of view," he explained. "I didn't think I'd get anything different [if he had interviewed a Dole representative.]" Another audience member questioned the fact that Gertten had shown footage from another documentary about Dole's presence in Nicaragua to the plaintiff's lawyers, which was subsequently used as evidence in court. "The point where you start working for the plaintiffs and giving them footage, you're almost working for them," the audience member noted. "I wonder if you got so close to your characters that you couldn't see things that a lawyer should not be doing. Maybe you were just too involved on one side." Churchill countered, "People who make documentaries have to get very close to the people they're making films about. When you get to know people, it's always very complicated." Schnack noted, "But if it turns out that your subject is untrustworthy, it opens up so many questions, I don't know where they all lead....It's hard to watch the film with a clean slate. My sense through it all was not so much thinking of new things to shoot, but in ways that you could take what you have and make it more of a question as to what is the truth, where does the truth lie, then the audience can make up their own minds about it."

Prior to the screening Gertten addressed the audience, saying, "I don't believe that film can change the world, but it can start a debate." In the days that followed over the course of the festival, the debate continued among the filmmaking community. Schnack, in his blog, wrote, "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 filmmaker's 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?"

Filmmaker Alex Rivera countered Schnack's argument in an essay in indieWIRE: "A community of filmmakers here is telling a documentarian that a court ruling should compel him to doubt his subjects, and re-cut his film. The problem here is the filmmaker doesn't agree with the recent ruling....It doesn't matter if it's by questioning a past court decision, following an unfolding court case, or in the case of Bananas!*, a case that takes a turn after the film is completed, documentarians play the most crucial role when they question the official story. This belief is, to me, part of the fabric of our independent film community."

Post-festival, the Bananas!* story continues. According to the documentary's website, Dole's law firm subpoenaed LAFF for "all business records pertaining to Bananas!*" Gertten wrote a letter to Film Independent's executive director, Dawn Hudson, and its Board of Directors  imploring them to not cede to Dole's demands, warning, "This could very well set a dangerous precedent in how outside parties handle legal actions toward films presented at the Los Angeles Film Festival and films associated with Film Independent."

Of course, there was more to LAFF 09 than Bananas!*. Ambulante, the brainchild of actors/filmmakers Diego Luna and Gael Garcia-Bernael, has been touring documentaries around Mexico three months out of the year for the past five years. Luna and his Ambulante colleagues Pablo Cruz and Elene Fortes participated on a panel at LAFF along with Natalia Alamda (El General), Rebecca Camissa (Which Way Home), Nailea Norvind (Born Without) and Anais Huerta and Raul Cuesta (Rehje) among the docmakers.

Luna and his colleagues launched Ambulante out of a passion for documentaries and a lack of exhibition spaces in Mexico for them. This is not just a travelling exhibition festival, however; there's a strong education component, and other countries around the world have taken notice and have invited Ambulante to replicate their model. "Film doesn't have passports, it's relevant everywhere," Luna maintained. "We think documentary is a tool for change and an element for change. Our's is an adolescent country, we only recently truly elected our first president after more then 70 years after the revolution, and I think documentary can help formulate a country's personality."

El General, Rehje and Born Without screened at LAFF as part of the Ambulante showcase. El General is a lyrical essay about Almada's great grandfather, Plutarco Elias Calles, who served as president of Mexico in the mid-1920s. Using her grandmother's audiotape reflections about Calles as part of the sound design and a counterpoint to archival footage, home movies and impressionistic imagery of contemporary Mexico, Alamada has created an elegant poem about personal memory and official history and how both persist in the psychic landscape of her native country.

Born Without was a project whose seeds were planted 30 years before by Norwegian transplant Eva Norvind, who met Jose Flores, a street musician with no arms, who stood three feet tall. Three decades later, she decided to make a film about him-and uncover the fascinating life of this galvanizing spirit. Norvind, originally trained as a psychologist, teases out the man behind the inspiring human spirit, and he and his wife share their remarkably candid stories of love, life and parenthood. Norvind died tragically in a drowning accident just before she finished post-production on the film, and her daughter Nailea picked up where her mother left off. This testament to both Eva Norvind and Jose Flores earned the Audience Award in the International Category.

A man with no legs in a street, surrounded by six children
From Eva Norvind's Born Without. Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

Rehje profiles Antonia, an indigenous Mazahua women who has been living in Mexico City for nearly 30 years, having migrated there from the Valley of Mexico due to the water shortage there. Mired in an unhappy marriage, with three grown sons, she feels the compulsion to return to her village. The filmmakers follow her to a desolate, arid place that hardly feels like home to her. After a week, she affirms the Thomas Wolfe chestnut "You can't go home again," and returns to the home that never felt like home, Mexico City.

In the Q&A, Huerta and Cuesta talked about how they wanted to make a documentary about the water shortage in the Valley of Mexico and tell it through the perspective of the Mazahua people. In Antonia, they found their protagonist, who talks about her indigeous identity, migration, marriage, city and village life, and the water shortage. While one can applaud the creative choice of exploring both a social issue and an environmental one through the perspective of one who has been impacted by both, Antonia is not a strong enough character to carry the film-perhaps because we don't see her interact with other people enough. The filmmakers talked about how "she wants to be independent, yet she fears being alone." One can sense this quandary, but it's not enough to feel it viscerally.

A middle aged woman stands in a field, arms crossed, looking into the distance to the side
From Anais Huerta and Raul Cuesta's Rehje. Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

One film that was not part of the Ambulante showcase at LAFF came from one of Mexico's finest documentary filmmakers--Juan Carlos Rulfo, who, with Carlos Hagerman, made Those Who Remain, which won the Target Documentary Award. We have witnessed a plethora of documentaries about the immigration experience to America over the years, but Those Who Remain is a rare profile of, yes, those who remain. Rulfo and Hagerman cast a country-wide net to capture a rich cast of characters-some who migrated to America, and then returned, disillusioned; some who had left their families behind with the hopes that they'll reunite; some who yearn to leave; some who choose to remain. The filmmakers found a community of beautiful souls who candidly discuss their ambivalence about roots; their native pride; their allegiance to family and traditions; the lack of economic opportunity; their restlessness about home and hearth. Rulfo and Hagerman have clearly opened their minds to this struggle between homeland and horizon, with a cinematic poetry and musical resonance that beckons one back.

A man with his back to the camera stands and looks out into mountains, holding a fedora on his head
From Juan Carlos Rulfo and Carlos Hagerman's Those Who Remain. Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.