Released in 2009, Swedish documentary BANANAS! chronicles the struggle between Dole Fruit Company and Nicaraguan plantation workers concerning allegations of sterilization caused by banned pesticide DBCP. I expected an epic tale of an oppressed people’s search for validation in the face of an ‘evil’ corporation. The actual story, however, is far more grim. We’ve all heard the stories of massive corporations exploiting workers, and unless you’re Ayn Rand, we root for the oppressed masses. In that respect, the film maintains the status quo. The difference is that this time around, no one wins.
Director Frank Gertten employes some above average cinematography to create a visually engaging film. I hesitate to call this documentary a particularly frank or honest portrayal of Nicaragua however, because people and places seem to be romanticized in a way which suggests some kind of nobility through suffering. The juxtaposition of the natural beauty of the country and the tragic strife of its people suggests that they are heart wrenchingly vulnerable and portrays the predatory Dole Fruit Company as the next Cyberdyne or Umbrella Corporation.
Compelling characters pepper the film, including charismatic attorney Juan J. Dominguez and his hard-nosed and sardonic partner Duane Miller. The faces of Dole, CEO David DeLorenzo and attorney Rick McNight, are portrayed as an incompetent sociopath and warmongering bully-for-hire, respectively. Gertten wants our sympathies to lie with the downtrodden, but instead of showing us proof that the Dole big-shots were objectively unscrupulous, we get caricatures which we are subtly told we should hate. Superficially immoral and shallow baddies aside, there is still enough substance left to satisfy.
Gertten does an admirable job of humanizing the issue and I felt genuinely saddened when a plantation worker broke down and cried when he was told that he would never be able to have children. I also enjoyed how the Nicaraguan people were almost personified as a whole through Byron, the son of a deceased plantation worker. Byron, a young man wise beyond his years, describes the conflict between his countrymen and the corporation as “a war” and asserts that “The general doesn’t care who dies. He only wants to win.”
The legal battle, the most substantive action, is engrossing in its own way but at the same time feels unsatisfying because no real conclusion is reached. Without spoiling too much of the plot, the bittersweet ending reminds us that in this day in age, the golden rule is “he who has the gold, makes the rules”.
I recommend the film to fans of other well-directed documentaries like Exit Through the Gift Shop and Jiro Dreams of Sushi and for those interested in social activism, BANANAS! will not disappoint. For those simply in search of entertainment, this flick might break up the monotony on a rainy afternoon. If curiosity prevails, be sure to stick around through the end credits for a quirky remix of the film’s theme song which is sure to make you smile in the spirit of Portal’s ‘Still Alive’.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5