Might of the multinational fails to stop campaigning film-maker

Director's exposé of life on banana plantation arrives in British cinemas
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The Independent Culture

When international food company Dole brought a lawsuit against a small-budget documentary featuring Nicaraguan banana plantation workers who alleged they had been left infertile by a banned pesticide, it appeared as if the film-maker would be beaten.

But Bananas*!, which is billed as a court-case thriller in the same vein as Erin Brockovich, became a sensation around the world. It gained so much support, from the global film industry, campaigning journalists and the Swedish parliament, that Dole withdrew its case against the film's Swedish director, Fredrik Gertten.

Now the film, which had its first UK screening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in central London last night and will run until 25 April, is to be followed by another documentary, relaying Mr Gertten's hair-raising experiences and his defence of freedom of speech.

The film tells the story of 12 workers at a Nicaraguan banana plantation in the 1970s who brought a lawsuit against Dole, alleging that working on the firm's plantation had caused them to become infertile because of the use of banned pesticide DBCP. Dole filed a lawsuit against the film-maker but it was withdrawn in mid-October, shortly after a petition was started by Swedish politicians.

The company's efforts to silence Gertten first began when the film was selected to take part in the Los Angeles Film Festival in May last year. Dole sent out warning letters both to film-makers and sponsors of the film festival who subsequently withdrew the documentary from the competition, although it was still screened – to a full house.

It was shown again, some months later, in a meeting room in the Swedish parliament. Afterwards, Swedish MPs Mats Johansson and Luciano Astudillo launched a cross-party petition, urging Dole to withdraw its lawsuit. On the same day, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents more than 600,000 journalists in 123 countries, condemned the lawsuit, and it was withdrawn soon afterwards.

Since then, Mr Gertten has been focusing on getting the film shown around the world. It was met by acclaim when it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival this year, and now it has reached London.

Yesterday, the director said: "It is a huge victory to screen at the ICA since there was a moment when we didn't know if the film ever would be seen. Dole was never my target. I wanted to make a film on the big back-story of 100 years of banana shipping from the South to the North. I had worked in Nicaragua for 35 years and I knew all about the banana marches."

A statement from Dole said: "Dole has withdrawn its lawsuit against the film-makers and the film-makers have withdrawn their counterclaim. Dole will defend its case but cannot comment further on an ongoing legal process." Of the film's content, and release, Dole stated: "The movie depicts a trial against Dole and other American companies, which took place in 2007 in Los Angeles. The trial regards the use in the 1970s of a pesticide called DBCP. Dole stopped all use of DBCP on all Dole-owned or Dole-contracted farms 30 years ago."

Michael Carter, Dole's executive vice-president and general counsel, was last October quoted as saying: "While the film-makers continue to show a film that is fundamentally flawed and contains many false statements, we look forward to an open discussion with the film-makers regarding the content of the film."

Bananas*!, distributed by Dogwoof, follows a spate of recent films and documentaries that aim to expose corporate wrongdoing. The 2000 film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts, told the tale of a campaigner fighting to expose the hushed-up poisoning of a town's water system by an energy corporation. And the film-maker Michael Moore last year released Capitalism: A Love Story, putting forward an indictment of the current economic order in America.