Transparent Swede filmmaker Fredrik-David vs. aggressive Dole-Goliath PR
An exclusive interview with Swedish documentary filmmaker, Fredrik Gertten, about his 2009 BANANAS! film and his currently screening (at film festivals around the world) Big Boys Gone Bananas!* documentary.
In particular, we talk about Dole’s aggressive corporate public relations and media campaign, which worked to prevent WG Film’s BANANAS! documentary from screening in the USA on multiple fronts (including Swedish media).
“In 2009, Fredrik Gertten’s documentary, BANANAS!, chronicling a lawsuit against controversial food giant Dole was set to premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Dole responded with an aggressive media and public relations campaign to quash the film’s release and discredit the reputation of the filmmakers. The filmmaking team behind BANANAS! refused to be bullied, filing a counter-suit and launching its own media strategy. Their point was that no one suing them had even seen the film! A true documentarian, Gertten picks up his camera again to capture his fight for free speech. Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is an in-depth case study of an independent filmmaker’s David and Goliath battle with a corporate machine whose financial and political influence must be exposed. Lynne Crocker, Hot Docs 2012 screening schedule
Please explain the meaning behind the film’s title, Big Boys Gone Bananas!*.
The film is coming from Sweden, a country where we believe the “big ones” should be good—“If you are very strong, you must be very kind,” declares our famous fictional heroine, Pippi Longstocking. So when the biggest fruit company in the world refuses to help workers that have been harmed and attacks filmmakers documenting that fact, we decided that Dole has “gone bananas.” This is a bad thing.
Following the (reopening of the renovated) Bloor Cinema screening for Hot Docs stakeholders, you did a Skype Q and A from Uruguay (where your film was playing at a film festival). Early on you indicated this documentary was made in a transparent manner. What did you mean by that?
When we first realized Dole was attacking us, we began to publish everything on our website: all pro-Dole articles, all Dole letters and all legal documents. Potential audiences and interested individuals could find out opinions from both sides by visiting our site. On the Dole site there was only one side of the story.
We were transparent; Dole and its PR agency were not.
Listening to the various interview subjects in Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, one gets the sense that faith in Corporate America, its compliant/weakened media and the cherished First Amendment (i.e., freedom of expression) were fundamentally shaken. Is this impression true?
Dole attacked us with full aggression and with scare tactics that definitely made a deep impact. Sending out cease and desist letters and suing people might be something that is more common in the USA.
But the other part of its strategy might happen—and probably does happen—in many other countries relating to crisis management. Most large corporations and their PR agencies have crisis management on the menu. A part of this role is to make any critics of a company look stupid and to spin a tale so that the focus shifts away from the damaging story. Dole did that very well. But this is not only about Dole. I am certain that Canadian, Swedish, German, French, etc., companies would do the same. I think we make life a bit too simple if we consider this a USA-only disease.
Recently a survey was published in Sweden where journalists indicated they had less time to spend on researching and writing articles in 2012 than five years earlier. On the other hand, PR consultants said they had more time to work on things to promote to journalists than they had five years ago. I believe this pattern is international in scope: with journalists having less time, life is made easier if a PR consultant wants to help create news stories.
The chilling effect of showing aggression works even better when traditional media have financial problems, as editors are less eager to take on fights. I think that’s likely what happened when BANANAS!* got attacked.
Your film has an American hero in your lawyer, with the delightful name of Lincoln Bandlow. (He specializes in quintessentially PR-oriented areas such as copyright infringement, defamation, right of publicity, right of privacy, trademark infringement and related claims). Was he essential to the final outcome of the lawsuit?
Lincoln Bandlow is a great lawyer. But he was also adamant that there was nothing to sue. All we really needed was for the assigned judge to watch our BANANAS!* documentary and see first-hand that Dole had filed a SLAPP lawsuit, which is a lawsuit only intended to stop free speech.
From your point of view, do corporate/agency Swedish public relations differ from that of American, in terms of strategy, tactics and tone?
Swedish PR practitioners and lobbyists tell me that this would never happen in Sweden. But isn’t that what all PR people say when a colleague is doing a bad job?
We can never check whether the code of ethics of a PR firm is being followed if there is no need to disclose clients. If we are talking about crisis management, when you have a client that has done something really stupid and you are paid to attack their critics, what can you do? Resign or do the dirty job.
I suspect PR agencies in Sweden and Canada also quite often decide to take the dirty job. In fact, dirty jobs offer more billable hours. Many more.
What do you think was the turning point in terms of support for BANANAS!*, particularly from Swedish media, businesses and citizens? Was it blogger Alfonso Allende calling for a boycott of Dole products at the Max Hamburgers chain? Or maybe screening the film for the Swedish Parliament (which must have been an international film first)?
For sure the turning point regarding my film was when blogger Alfonso Allende walked into Max Hamburgers in Malmö, Sweden and found himself served a Dole Fruit Salad. But remember, it’s not his blogging about a boycott that is the most important thing: Max Hamburgers has polished its brand to be something representing “Swedish values”—green, fair and modern. Allende blogged about the company as a customer and challenged its green façade.
The good thing about Max Hamburgers was that its CEO knew what the brand represented and decided to stop selling Dole Fruit Salad. So when Allende blogged the story it was “breaking news,” which was easily picked up… as my film and I was already receiving a lot of attention. Journalists were dying to get new angles to the BANANAS!* story.
Never in its 43-year-old history has Max Hamburgers received more media attention than at this time. And it has been in some heavy fights before—good and bad.
The screening in Parliament was also very important. When journalists are lazy they quote both sides and at that point they’ve done their job: “Dole says this, the filmmakers says that.” In that version of media storytelling Dole comes out quite well—it’s like we were evenly matched. We were not.
After watching BANANAS!*, the members of Parliament decided, “If trade is global, so too must journalism be global.” A Swedish journalist/filmmaker has the right to tell a story about an American corporation producing something that we consume in Sweden. Suing us (WG Film) was an attack on free speech in Sweden as well.
This made it much harder for Dole clients in Sweden to say that couldn’t take sides in a legal fight between Dole and WG Film; now those clients had to decide if they were in favour of free speech.
That certainly shifted the focus in a good way. From that moment Dole was losing, at least in Sweden.
In some ways Big Boys Gone Bananas!* is like an incredibly strategic PR strike regarding the artistic and punitive financial threats made against producer Margarete Jangård and you. Was this a reality at the front end when deciding to make the film?
Every film is a long journey. First of all, it was my journey in trying to understand what Dole did, including how they did it.
I was confused and fairly shocked when the American media made me the villain—I was the one they tried to trap with smart questions! It was really quite aggressive. And the biggest assaults came from journalists who hadn’t seen my film before asking questions.
Coming from a journalism background, I found this interesting. I understood that this is the sign of the times and that it was something we must talk about. In our case, though film making.
Some of your commentators (e.g., Sven Hughes, Ken Silverstein and Tim Burt) talked about the movement of large numbers of journalists and former politicos into public relations. Do you think this is inherently dangerous when it comes to freedom of expression and manipulation of the media, government and legal bodies or simply something we all must become more cognizant about?
When a lot of good people are “for sale” to one with the deepest pockets it’s always scary. This is especially true because the PR industry refuses to disclose their various clients.
Companies who buy strategic communication have an agenda—political clients probably the most often. As citizens we should have the right to see who is paying to create changes in society.
In Sweden we have a former prime minister working for a PR firm. I think it’s important for us to know who employs him. And that goes for many other high-ranking people who have changed sides.
Has this experience shaken you enough that it would give you pause before taking on the documentary “truth-telling” story role in regards to other large, multinational corporations when it comes to social activism, greed and perceived injustices?
It was never my intention to take on any multinational when I started to research BANANAS!*. It was simply a very intriguing story.
I am a filmmaker. I am looking for good stories. In making a documentary the biggest challenge is creating something that will have an impact on its audience. I am not, and will never be, a corporation hunter.
When I make a documentary film I must do it as well as I can, thinking of my audience. All of the other aspects and challenges come later.
Regarding promoting documentary films, I think Burma VJ (a Danish/Swedish film, which your production company had some involvement) was one of the first films to set up a Twitter account—and it followed me! And for Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, I was quite intrigued and impressed to discover your blog site established a page dedicated to my related tweets. Do you think Swedish filmmakers are making better use of social media than most?
WG Film is a Swedish production company that only produces international documentaries. This means we need to find new ways to spread the word. We listen and get inspiration from all over the place.
We have much more to learn. Especially when it comes to making money, as it’s extremely hard to survive in this filmmaking game. And as we lost almost $200,000 dollars in this legal fight with Dole we need to be even better in the future. We’re doing this by opening up doors, including through social media, so that our audience can support us.
We are also interested in PR agencies that would like to help us to promote the film on a pro bono basis. In Canada that would be really important, because the film has already secured a theatrical release….
Where has it screened so far and has it won any awards?
The film is currently playing at festivals all over the world and it is being really well received. We won two great awards in Prague, one of them being an audience award—this was a good thing. It also won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sarasota Film Festival.
Finally, is the 2009 BANANAS!* documentary any closer to receiving American film distribution as a result of Big Boys Gone Bananas!*?
We hope so.
* * *
[When I picked up my Hot Docs tickets I checked and there were still some tickets available at the Wednesday, May 2nd, screening. The film also opens for a commercial release at Hot Docs' Bloor Cinema on May 11th. JG]
Fredrik Gertten is a Swedish film maker and journalist. He has worked as a journalist for newspapers, radio and television in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe (during the 1980s and 1990s). In 1995, he published the travel book Ung man söker världen (Young man looking for the World) through the publisher Gong Gong förlag.
He wrote for the newspaper Arbetet from 1990 until it ceased publication in 2000 and for Kvällsposten in 2001-2003. He has also been the producer of documentaries and entertainment shows for the Swedish television channels SVT, TV 4 and TV 3. For his complete Filomgraphy see IMDb. Follow his personal Twitter account.
For more info about Big Boys Go Bananas!* check out these links:
Also see article from the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s J-Source publication: