MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

The Slippery Slope of Truth in Non-Fiction Films

Rich, successful Latino-American lawyer takes on a big corporation on behalf of downtrodden, third-world workers and wins. It makes for a great “David versus Goliath” story of melodramatic Erin Brockovich proportions — but what if the David of the story ends up being accused of fraud, causing not only that case but others to be thrown out of court? And what happens when a documentary filmmaker sets out to tell a tale about social justice, only to find after the film has wrapped that the tale he started out to tell may not be the whole story … or even the real story at all?

The documentary Bananas!* follows a monumental court case in which Los Angeles personal injury attorney Juan “Accidente” Dominguez sues banana-giant Dole on behalf of a group of poor Nicaraguan banana plantation workers, alleging that the company’s use of a pesticide, Nemagon, caused the men to be sterile. At the end of the film, after much legal wrangling, the American jury finds in favor of only half the plaintiffs, but awards them additional punitive damages after finding that Dole acted with malice.

It’s a great story —  until just before the final credits, when the filmmaker tosses in the coda to the case with a few terse words:  “Dole appealed all verdicts in the case and accused Juan Dominguez of fabricating evidence. April 23, 2009. Judge Chaney dismisses all Nicaraguan cases pending before her, citing serious fraud allegations. Juan Dominguez is fighting all charges of fraud against him.”

Bananas!* screened recently at the Los Angeles Film Festival amid a swirl of controversy including threatening cease-and-desist letters from banana giant Dole’s legal team to the filmmaker, the fest and its sponsors. The film was slated to be in competition at the fest, but due to all the legal issues ended up being shown at the fest as a “case study” (complete with legal disclaimers handed out to the audience).

What should a filmmaker do when the facts of a story change so drastically? If there’s a perception that one side of an argument has committed a greater moral wrong, does that obviate the filmmaker of the need to tell the full story? Filmmaker Fredrik Gertten‘s argument is essentially that the events filmed for the movie are still valid, because they happened as the camera caught them, and the evidence presented that Dole admitted to using a pesticide that had been banned in the US is still true, regardless of any allegations of fraud against the plaintiff’s attorney.

Does the greater truth of Dole’s admitted use of the pesticide at those banana plantations trump any interest in whether the charges against Dominguez are true or false? On the film’s website, nothing about the film or Dominguez mentions anything about the cases being dismissed because of fraud allegations against the movie’s would-be Robin Hood. But if the charges against Dominguez prove to be true, wouldn’t that make him a villain of this story rather than the conquering hero, thereby changing it entirely?

Look, I’m totally on the side of “it’s not hard-to-swallow that a big chemical company might put profit over the fertility prospects of their poor Nicaraguan banana plantation workers.” But believing in the social justice viewpoint of a film is a long ways from agreeing that the big company’s presumed guilt is reason enough to dismiss out-of-hand considering honestly whether the guy at the heart of your story, this hero of the oppressed peasantry, is actually guilty of fraud. Because if he is (and that’s also a matter for the courts to decide), he may have actually hurt those poor Nicaraguan workers more than anyone, by making it that much harder for any future plaintiffs to prove their case against their Goliath.

As it stands, I don’t see how to justify showing, distributing or marketing this film, other than perhaps, as the Los Angeles Film Festival did, by showing it as a case study for how you can invest all this time and money in a film to have the ground shift beneath your feet and find you’ve lost all that time and money and need to start over. I feel for the filmmaker, for all the work that went into completing this project, only to find that it’s not quite done, but it is what it is. The best thing he can do with it at this point is pull back, continue to follow and record the story as it unfolds, and eventually re-edit the film to reflect all that’s happened.

Fascinating as this particular case study is, there’s a larger question underlying it: What’s the point of documentary storytelling? Is it merely to frame and tell the story the filmmaker wants to tell, with no claim whatsoever to objectivity? It seems we’re seeing a lot of this type of social justice, agitprop documentary of late — films that we’re not supposed to criticize and stories we’re not supposed to question because their cause is so “worthy” — and I find this troublesome not only from the viewpoint of analyzing and critiquing the films, but for the mixed messages they’re sending to their audience.

I think most folks, when they go to see a documentary film, expect that what they’re seeing is a “true” story, or at least something resembling the truth, as framed by the filmmaker. But the reality is, these social justice docs very often are painted to a narrow point of view that makes little or no attempt to get both sides of a story; what the audience is seeing, then, becomes as specifically the story the filmmaker wants to tell as any scripted narrative film. Michael Moore‘s been doing this for years, of course, much to the chagrin of his critics, but it seems we’re seeing more and more of it lately. And I’m not sure I like this style of documentary filmmaking personally, nor am I sure this is a good thing for the genre overall. I get that documentary is more a form of storytelling than strictly objective “news” reporting, but if the story you’re telling is only part of the truth, are you being honest with your audience, or are you merely playing on their emotions to manipulate them into believing what you’re selling?

I’m sure not everyone shares my perspective on this, so I’m leaving some space over here for you to share your own point of view. Should documentary filmmakers make some effort to tell a story that’s as true as possible, or is there enough flexibility within the genre for stories that are skewed toward a particular viewpoint, regardless of how objectively true that story may be? And should an audience have some expectation when they see a documentary that they’re seeing something approximating “truth,” or should they be expected to just suspend disbelief as they would for a narrative film, and go along for the ride?

– by Kim Voynar

Note: This column was inspired, in part, by these articles at indieWIRE and All These Wonderful Things.

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