A recent controversy surrounding the film “Bananas!*,” which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month has brought to the fore one of the most relentless issues in documentary film: representing truth. In Fredrik Gertten’s “Bananas!*,” Nicaraguan workers hire a flashy civil lawyer to take on the Dole food company, claiming that they were made sterile due to exposure to a pesticide. A court ruled in the workers’ favor. Dole is appealing this case. Then, many workers who were not included in the first case brought a similar case to court with the same lawyer. These cases were thrown out by a judge due to fraud. The final cut of Gertten’s film, though, was made in between the initial ruling and the fraud ruling. The film, which was originally accepted into competition at LAFF was taken out of competition and was screened instead as, “A Case Study.”
Here on indieWIRE, filmmaker Alex Rivera, who attended a LAFF screening of the film was surprised at the reaction of some within the audience. “Many filmmakers here have stated that since the judge found that fraud was committed, that the story ‘Bananas!*’ tells is compromised. They take Judge Chaney’s ruling as a touch of truth. These filmmakers have been openly — even in the panel discussion immediately following the film’s premier — encouraging the filmmaker to revisit the film ‘to better reflect the truth.'” Rivera continued on to say that the Gertten doesn’t necessarily believe in the “truth” behind the fraud ruling. He continued, “At the “Bananas!*” premiere no one asked Gertten if he still believed in his story. When the lights went up the conversation began with the participants implicitly accepting the truth behind the new ruling from the judge, and asking Gertten how he would deal with his presumably tainted film. It would have been hard to imagine a better post-screening discussion, from Dole’s point of view – no one even mentioned the pesticide.” As Rivera is arguing, of what value are independent documentaries if we are allowing huge, looming, powerful (fallible) infrastructures to define what is “true”?
One filmmaker who is willing to take the latter court ruling as truth for the moment seems to be director A.J. Schnack (“Convention”, “About a Son”). On his blog, Schnack is concerned about the integrity of the documentary genre. “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?”
In a 2005 story that he told on All Things Considered, Errol Morris recounted a tale of his childhood. He was arguing with an older, bigger boy whether Reno, NV was east or west of Los Angeles. Morris was right, but the boy fought him on various fraudulent counts. The older boy wouldn’t concede no matter what…because he was bigger. Morris uses this as a metaphor for the truth-finding exercise that is documentary filmmaking. On his desire for truth, Morris says, “There is such a thing as truth, but we often have a vested interest in ignoring it or outright denying it. Also, it’s not just thinking something that makes it true. Truth is not relative. It’s not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth and the pursuit of truth: trying to figure out what has really happened, trying to figure out how things really are.” He goes on to talk about The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that would have been nothing without Morris’ desire to find out a truth — one beyond the stories that were commonly held to be true when he started filming.
There is also the king of controversy within the doc world, Michael Moore. In an open letter to Moore two years ago, John Pierson (who sold the film twenty years ago), admitted to loving “Roger & Me” still, but was angered because Moore seemed to have a proclivity towards manipulating events so that they serve his narrative arc better. In particular, Pierson was angered because it seemed that Michael Moore did meet Roger Smith before the film “Roger & Me” was finished. The lack of a meeting is, of course, central to Moore’s claim of Smith’s apathy in the economic instability of the auto industry in Flint, Michigan. Pierson’s big beef with Moore was that he knowingly manipulated a small truth to try to prove a bigger truth.
It will forever be a problem that the documentary medium has a greater claim to truth. There is also the assumption, scrutinized by Schnack, that independent documentarians should be working to overturn the great lies of bulky societal infrastructures. In the case of “Bananas!*,” there seems to be a call to arms written in the historical record. As the U.S. court system and corporate interests get more involved in a story that was first made about a lawyer and his clients, truth still remains somewhere underneath all the layers of flashy smiles, legalese, and threatening subpoenas. On the film’s website, there are legal updates and new documents from the Dole lawyers, LAFF, and the filmmakers. In this case, the truth-searching that Morris so desperately wants and the new film that Schnack sees emerging may play itself on a medium even younger than the documentary: The Internet.
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