Bananas! tells story of a global food industry

We see them in piles at the grocery store, on our kitchen counters, atop our cereal, but for many plantation workers in Nicaragua, daily exposure to bananas has had a much more profound impact on their lives.

Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten’s Bananas! artfully relates the true stories of a handful of these plantation workers as they battle the Dole Food Co. in court.

Represented by famed Los Angeles lawyer Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez, the workers sued Dole for using a pesticide known as Nemagon on its bananas in Nicaragua during the 1970s, even after the chemical was banned in other countries across the world.

Though the chemical has been proven to cause a wide range of health issues, Dominguez chose to focus on the cases in which exposure to the chemical caused sterility.

As the film follows Dominguez’s journey through Nicaragua to talk to some of the affected Dole workers first-hand and subsequently fight for their rights, it also provides a very intimate look at the heart-wrenching circumstances and stories of the employees that were unknowingly exposed to the harmful chemicals.

By piecing together recent interviews with Nicaraguan men, women and children and footage of what went on at the country’s banana plantations more than 30 years ago, Gertten is able to shed light on a side of the global food industry that many do not know exists.

He shows machinery fumigating the fields with the toxic chemicals, the formula dripping into puddles that the workers would then walk through barefoot, as well as men pulling hordes of bananas across fields with a cable tied around their waist.  He shows men talking about how they always wanted to have children, but weren’t able to after working on the plantations and women who miscarried or bore babies with fatal birth defects as a result of their direct contact with the chemical.

Yet, as many of the Nicaraguans attest both in their conversations with Dominguez and in court, they were never warned about the potential harmful effects of exposure to Nemagon by the Dole authorities, nor were they instructed about how to protect themselves from these effects.

It is this injustice that Gertten captures so vividly and effectively throughout the film.  He does so, however, in a very fair, well-balanced manner.

As he intersperses footage from inside the courtroom with scenes of Nicaraguan heartbreak, he makes sure to include several scenes in which some of the plantation workers on the stand give a different story than they gave in their deposition, as pointed out by the opposing attorneys.  Viewers, then, are able to decide whether or not the plaintiffs suing Dole are telling the truth, much like the jury in the film does.

Also very effective throughout the film is the inclusion of the in-court testimonies of David DeLorenzo, President and CEO of Dole Food Co., whose involvement with the case runs deep as he was actually stationed in Nicaragua during the ’70s.  Though he is confronted with the issue multiple times in his cross examination, DeLorenzo is repeatedly unable to provide a valid reason for continuing the use of Nemagon on the Nicaraguan banana plantations after it was banned elsewhere.

While the initial ruling that was made on the 12 featured court cases is included in the film, Gertten is very careful to inform viewers that the issue is by no means closed.  Rather than depicting a resolution at the film’s end, the director makes it clear that neither the thousands of Nicaraguan workers affected by the toxic pesticides nor Dominguez are done fighting to right the Dole Food Co.’s wrongful actions.

Through his intelligently crafted documentary, Gertten not only tells a powerful story about the negligence of a large corporation in protecting the health of its employees, but he brings attention to an important issue that might make people think twice before picking up their next bunch of bananas or carton of juice with the name “Dole” on it.