Normally, when someone writes an editorial or a letter to the editor that is critical of the Business Journal in some way or disagrees with me personally, we publish it without response from us. Reasonable people can disagree, after all, and everyone should have their say.
But this one, I can’t let pass.
The director of the new documentary “Bananas!” scolded me in a letter to the editor published last week in the Business Journal. He said it was “irresponsible journalism” for the paper to publish, in the June 8 issue, an article on Page 1 headlined “The Big Slip-Up.”
His main complaint was that we hadn’t seen his movie, so we should not have written an article that made “conclusions as to its contents.” As a result, he said the reporter who produced the article, Alexa Hyland, and I “failed to conduct appropriate objective research.” He used words such as “outrage” and “offended.”
The director, whose name is Fredrik Gertten, concluded: “Bottom line, to Hyland and the Business Journal see the film and then let’s talk. Until then, all that has been presented here is a skewed report based only on biased speculation.”
OK. I went to see the movie at its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival on July 20. So let’s talk.
I’ll let pass the fact that Gertten refused to answer questions from Hyland as she was reporting out the story, and therefore has little standing to complain that his view wasn’t represented well. I’ll let pass the fact that the finished article never claimed that we had seen the movie; the article used the phrase “according to the film’s trailer and Web site. ” And I’ll let pass the part about how I invited him to point out any factual errors in the article but he came up empty.
But what I can’t let pass is what I believe to be his hypocrisy. He wrote that Hyland and I are irresponsible because we failed to conduct appropriate, objective research. But that is exactly what he is so utterly guilty of.
The movie follows and pretty much glorifies a crusading L.A. lawyer as he represents downtrodden workers who claimed they were made sterile by a pesticide they used on the banana plantation in Nicaragua owned by Dole Food Co. of Westlake Village.
The man Gertten chose to follow, Juan Dominguez, is a personal injury lawyer who puts all those “Accidentes” ads on buses in Los Angeles. In the movie, he smokes cigars and zips around Los Angeles in his red Ferrari. But in Nicaragua, he becomes a straw hat-wearing savior to the common folk with promises of big paydays. He whips auditoriums of potential class-action plaintiffs into a frenzy of greed and hatred. He spouts lines like: “We are fighting a monster” and “Every death is a victory for Dole.”
Aside from the fact that an ambulance chaser who advertises on buses is not the kind of guy responsible filmmakers would choose to glorify, Dominguez’s behavior should have raised a plantation’s worth of red flags. But Gertten didn’t bother to do much research.
After Gertten’s film was completed but before it premiered and you can almost see this coming a judge in the case against Dole said that some of the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs’ lawyer had committed fraud. The court had been given false employment records (at least some of the “workers” may never have worked on the plantation) and false medical records showing sterility. The fraud was so pervasive that pretty much anything related to the case coming out of Nicaragua is now suspect.
Dominguez is pretty much a one-man pile-up. The court referred him to the state bar association for possible disciplinary proceedings and to criminal prosecutors. (All that, by the way, was the basis of “The Big Slip-Up” article.)
After the premiere of the movie last week, there was a panel discussion. Gertten was asked if he had allowed himself to get too close to Dominguez. Yes, Gertten admitted, but he said Dominguez was an interesting character good for a movie, you know and Dominguez allowed Gertten to film him a lot, so Gertten “didn’t want the doors shut on me” by asking too many questions.
Gertten was also asked if he had ever reached out to Dole, to get the company’s side of things.
Nope, said Gertten. He wanted to remain “true to my point of view.”
OK. So let me make sure I understand. Gertten didn’t see anything wrong with focusing on Dominguez. He didn’t bother to do a reality check on Dominguez, despite the many red flags. Gertten didn’t want to ask any tough questions of Dominguez because he wanted to continue filming. What’s more, Gertten spent two years filming and six months editing a hit piece on Dole and never once bothered to contact the company to get its side of things. And it’s the Business Journal that failed to conduct objective research?
You know, I could even let pass all of this if Gertten had reacted properly. If he had done the right thing.
The right thing would have been to pull back the movie. Responsible journalists pull back stories if they discover their sources had hoodwinked them. Responsible companies pull back their products if they’re found to be tainted.
Or maybe Gertten could have repurposed his film into a documentary on Dominguez. He is, after all, an interesting character.
But since Gertten chose not to do the right thing, I’m left to conclude that he is an irresponsible filmmaker who’s presented us with a skewed movie based on his own biases.
And a hypocrite, too.
Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at