The Swedish filmmakers of the hot-button documentary Bananas! have retained Los Angeles attorney Lincoln Bandlow of Lathrop and Gage, a specialist in First Amendment cases, to defend them in a defamation suit brought by Dole Food Company, according to the filmmaker’s Oakland attorney Richard J. Lee, of Lee and Lawless. Director-producer Frederik Gertten and producer Margarete Jangard’s film, which screened twice in June in the Los Angeles Film Festival, documents a lawsuit filed in that city by Nicaraguan banana plantation workers accusing the multinational food company of hiding the risks of Nemagon, a pesticide known as DBCP that causes sterility in humans. Dole’s contention is that the film defames the company.
"[Dole] engaged in a very serious attempt to malign the film before they even saw it," Lee told SF360. "They started by writing a letter to ITVS, which is one of the [film’s] funders, and [the Swedish production company] WG Film, with a copy to the corporate sponsors of the Los Angeles Film Festival. They didn’t send it to the LAFF. Their intent from the beginning was to intimidate or to get the sponsors to insist this film not be shown. They wrote to the Swedish Consulate and told them they shouldn’t have anything to do with the film. They have been acting like bullies from the beginning."
Bananas! centers on the Tellez et al v. Dole Food Company Inc. et al trial. It includes testimony Dole’s CEO gave on the stand that the company continued to use Nemagon on its Nicaraguan banana crops after it had been banned in the United States. "They don’t want this film out there because it shows clearly, out of their mouths, that they continued the use of the pesticide after they knew it causes harm to people who work near it," Lee says.
Dole’s legal argument, Lee says, rests on the judge’s ruling in a subsequent, similar suit brought by the attorney in the Tellez case. "Judge Chaney used an extraordinary procedure to find that the plaintiffs’ attorneys had committed fraud and misconduct. She made no finding about the underlying liability of the case, but only about the plaintiff’s attorneys. Dole is trying to say that this ruling exculpates them, but it doesn’t."
It is not unprecedented for deep-pocket corporations to challenge documentaries in court. The strategy is intended not merely to force independent filmmakers to incur legal expenses, but to cast a cloud that will scare off potential distributors and exhibitors."There’s no doubt that that’s what they’re attempting to do," Lee replied. "We’re attempting to get them kicked out of court as soon as we can."
"The film itself is a fair and balanced documentary,"Lee maintains. "There’s no voice-over. The people the filmmakers encountered are speaking their own words. None of the statements that are set forth in the complaint against the film are true."
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