OK, this is a new one to me: A Swedish filmmaker brings us the story of Nicaraguan laborers treated unfairly by a major American food company. Yet that's precisely what Bananas!* (2009) delivers: this documentary spills the beans on a lawsuit brought against Dole Food Company and Dow Chemicals two years earlier...and, of course, the legal battle that ensued. At the forefront of Bananas!* is Los Angeles-based personal injury attorney Juan Dominguez, who's representing a dozen Nicaraguan workers diagnosed as "sterile". Their unfortunate medical condition appears to be the direct result of their exposure to DBCP (a pesticide banned by the EPA in 1979), which was still being used by Dole in their local banana plantations.
The plot of Bananas!* thickens, and thickens quickly. Facts are laid out in fairly plain detail, and the stage is set for a truly handicapped legal battle that's apparently still going on. As its core, this scathing documentary isn't anti-corporate or anti-American, even though it's certainly painted as "David vs. Goliath" and the multi-ethnic battle takes place right in California. Anxious Nicaraguan locals, some friends and relatives of the plaintiffs, are sporadically fed updates via radio broadcast from Dominguez's Los Angeles office. It's gripping stuff, for the most part, even though a rock-solid conclusion isn't reached by the end credits. This is certainly a pet peeve of mine, but Bananas!* is most likely the first part of a larger picture by director Fredrik Gertten.
Aside from this "false conclusion", the only misstep during Bananas!* occurs somewhere near the middle. Juan Dominguez---in particular, his general career path and background---is given too much time in the spotlight, pulling attention away from the legal case at hand. He's certainly an outspoken and charismatic figure, but having such a man at the forefront of this documentary doesn't always seem like a good idea. A more objective approach to the storytelling---or even a third party doing the talking---would do wonders for the film's momentum during the second act. Despite these limitations, Bananas!* is an enjoyable and accessible documentary.
Interestingly enough, this 2009 film was only just cleared for an American release last November after a court decision is Los Angeles. As such, Bananas!* has recently arrived on DVD courtesy of the reliable Oscilloscope Laboratories---and if nothing else, this one-disc release pairs a decent technical presentation with a small assortment of helpful bonus features.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Bananas!* looks fine with a few mild reservations. The film appears to have been shot on mid-grade digital equipment, which means that image detail and the film's color palette are fine but slightly underwhelming at times. Notable amounts of digital problems can also be spotted, such as trace amounts of edge enhancement, noise and moderate compression artifacts. This certainly doesn't make Bananas!* unwatchable (especially since many of the problems were unavoidable), but the visual quality here is average at best.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (also available in 2.0 Stereo) is low-key but still has its moments. Both tracks are presented in English and Spanish with two sets of optional English subtitles (one for translation only, the other for full SDH captions), as well as optional French and Spanish subs. Separation is strong and rear channels are primarily used for music cues, never fighting for attention with the film's dialogue. Overall, a fine job, especially with the subtitle choices.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the animated menu designs are simple and easy to navigate. The 86-minute main feature has been divided into 16 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a deluxe foldout paperboard case adorned with plenty of stylized artwork and photos (and even a bookmark). It's quite a nice packaging design overall...aside from the paper sleeve, which can easily scratch the DVD itself.
A small but occasionally helpful assortment of bonus features is also included here. First up is "The Fight" (8:31) an interview with Swedish director Fredrik Gertten. Conducted in English, this is a fairly general overview of the film's inception, production and impact---and although it's hardly a substitute for an audio commentary, this is still worth a look.
A pair of Television Commercials for Juan Dominguez's law firm is up next (2 clips, 1:04 total). These are shown in part during the main feature, but it's good to have them individually as well.
"Pictures from a Banana Plantation" (13:02) is a narrative-free collection of scenes from a plantation in Nicaragua; apparently, it seems to be one of the locations seen during the main feature. It's interesting to see this footage in such a raw, almost voyeuristic format, but this one's for serious fans only.
A Q&A with Fredrik Gertten (23:26) is up next, which was recorded during the film's Swedish premiere. Burned-in subtitles are included during the actual Q&A session, though other portions don't have this benefit. As far as crowd-directed interviews go, this is fairly middle-of-the-road, but only a few bits of information are repeated from the earlier interview.
Two Bonus Short Films close out the extras, and they're in pretty rough (but still watchable) shape. "About Bananas" (1935, B/W, 10:46) is a silent film detailing some of the fruit's history, but a bit of background music would've help speed things along. "Journey to Banana Land" (1950, color, 20:41) is much more accessible, giving us a guided tour of the fruit's growth cycle and the brisk journey it takes to our local supermarkets. Charmingly dated, this one's educational and entertaining.
Like the main feature, these extras include optional English subtitles for translation purposes only. All are presented in 1.33:1 or 16x9 widescreen format and look good, considering the source material.
Bananas!* isn't one of 2009's best documentaries, but this David-versus-Goliath tale is still quite entertaining and informative. The film does have trouble keeping things on track at times, especially during the saggy second act. Oscilloscope's DVD package offers a good amount of support, including a passable technical presentation and a few interesting extras. The sticker price of $29.99 seems a bit high, so interested parties should probably give this a trial run first. Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.