MEMBER OF THE MONTH - FREDRIK GERTTEN, WG FILM
In this monthly interview series launched in 2011 EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group.
Our EDN member of the month for January 2012 is Fredrik Gertten, director and producer at WG Film based in Malmö, Sweden. Gertten was one of the founders of WG Film in 1994 and since then the company has produced documentaries such as Boogie Woogie Daddy (Erik Bäfving, 2002), Belfast Girls (Malin Andersson, 2006), Milk Bar (Terese Mörnvik, Ewa Einhorn, 2007), Bananas!* (Fredrik Gertten, 2009), I Bought a Rain Forest (Jacob Andrén, Helena Nygren, 2010), Love Always, Carolyn (Maria Ramström, Malin Korkeasalo, 2011), and BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS (Fredrik Gertten, 2011).
In 2009 WG Film and Gertten came in an unexpected sharp focus when launching the documentary Bananas!*. Bananas!* follows lawyer Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez, who is on his biggest case ever. On behalf of twelve Nicaraguan banana workers he is tackling Dole Food Company in a ground-breaking legal battle for their use of a banned pesticide that was known by the company to cause sterility. The case is followed by experts and companies all over the world, and if Dominguez is successful, it could rock the economic foundations of Dole, and would open the US courts to other victims of US-based multinationals. But before Bananas!* even had its premiere WG Film, Gertten himself and the film’s producer Margarete Jangård were thrown into a lawsuit of their own. They were sued by Dole Food Company, Inc. for the screening of the film, and the lawsuit claimed that the film was defamatory and false toward Dole Food Corporation. Attorneys for Gertten, Jangård and WG Film filed a Motion to Strike Dole’s Complaint under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute, which allows the court to dismiss meritless lawsuits filed for the purpose of stifling protected speech. More than a year later The Los Angeles Superior Court granted the Anti-SLAPP motion, struck Dole’s lawsuit with prejudice and ordered them to pay attorneys fees and costs in the amount of $200,000.
EDN has talked to Gertten about the status of him and WG Film after Bananas!*. and the Dole lawsuit, about the documentary driving force and the current success of BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS.
EDN: BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS follows you and the company during the time of the Dole lawsuit. When and why did you decide to film this process?
FG: We filmmakers are sometimes a bit crazy, so we filmed the FedEx package with the cease and desist letter arriving to the office. Later on our lawyer told us that we should expect being delivered a lawsuit if we decided to go screen the film at Los Angeles Film Festival. We wanted to defend the film and took of, but if Dole was going to serve us we wanted to get it on film.
At that moment I had no idea if this was going to be a new film or not. It took some time to understand what story we were sitting on.
EDN: What was the hardest part in making BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS and what was the driving force for you going through a lawsuit and a filmmaking process at the same time?
FG: Honestly, the hardest part was directing a film with my self as the main character. I have never done that before. It was odd. But I also understood, there was no way around it. My narrative consultant and friend Niels Pagh Andersen was very important here, also my editor Jesper Osmund.
I was travelling a lot with Bananas!*, and doing that was a way of showing DOLE that they couldn’t stop the film. DOLE had success in the US but nowhere else. So as I travelled AND defended my film I could just as well do a film about it. Now understanding that the new film was about freedom of speech. Through our experience we could see what a corporation is ready to do when they want to protect their brand.
EDN: BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS premiered at IDFA in November last year. How was the film received there?
FG: The film was ready just two days before IDFA. So it was a really intense moment for me. I was amazed over all the laughs we got really early in the film. Our journey is absurd, I loved that the audience could both feel the anger and still laugh. Overall we got really good reactions and just a few days later we got an email from the Sundance Film Festival telling us that the film was selected for competition.
We have had some really tough years. Lasting all the way up to IDFA. So now we have a feeling that luck is coming back. Hopefully.
EDN: It must have been a great relief being at IDFA with a follow up film with a happy ending, but how has the whole process affected you and WG Film? Is it a stronger company now?
FG: WG film has lost tons of money. As you all know, we live by the production budgets. And if you defend a film for two years, talking to lawyers in Los Angeles every week, you will have less time for making new films. So unfortunately we are not stronger. Certainly financially weakened. But yes a lot of people know about us now, and that’s a good thing. It’s an ego boost for me personally, especially in Sweden. That’s fun, but doesn’t pay the bills.
EDN: What has been most rewarding in the whole Bananas!* process and the aftermath?
FG: Always meeting the audience. I have met audiences all over the world, from Beijing to Sao Paolo of the 50 countries that showed the film, I have attended 20. And yes I love to travel.
I returned to Nicaragua and showed the film to the workers. Over 900 came to see the film and they were happy and proud. Their story had travelled to the world.
EDN: Bananas!* was showed in the Swedish parliament and had an impact on several different levels in Sweden. What were the concrete outcomes and reactions of the film and the lawsuit? Are they still concrete actions started because of the film?
FG: The story became really huge in Sweden. And the support from the parliament and many others really helped us. The sale of Fair-Trade bananas has more than doubled in Sweden since the release of the film. The film is still being showed a lot in Sweden, but also in many other countries. NGO’s like Fair-Trade, Greenpeace, Amnesty and many others use the film in their campaigns. That’s really cool.
EDN: Were there similar reactions and direct actions other places around the world?
FG: AG DOK, the German documentary guild wrote an important letter to DOLE. Telling them that every German filmmaker would do a film on DOLE if they didn’t withdraw the lawsuit. That was a very important letter. But also Reporters without borders and the International Journalist Federation wrote letters to DOLE.
I have showed the film in a food coop in Brooklyn and Jersey, at universities and schools. When it was released in Austria DOLE had instructed the supermarkets in advance on what they should tell the press.
DOLE also tagged my name on Google, so whenever you googled my name there would be an add from DOLE saying my film was a lie. They kept doing that for two years.
EDN: BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS has now been selected for the coming Sundance Film Festival this month. Which section will the film be screened in? What was your reaction after receiving the invitation and what does this mean for the film?
FG: It’s in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, together with eleven other films. How do you describe the combination of happiness and the odd feeling of revenge? I am of course thrilled to travel to the US and show this film. DOLE managed to delay the release of the film for more than two years. It has still not been broadcasted, even if the TV rights are sold. DOLE wanted to suppress the banana workers story, now I have the chance to tell it again. That’s a great feeling.
Sundance is the most influential film festival in the US. The only festival that really gets national and international coverage. So YES we are happy, I have never been at Sundance before. So wow!
EDN: Has the whole Bananas!* case had an impact on the way you will make films in the future? Has it affected which subject you and the company will choose and how you will handle the subjects?
FG: I hope not. But at the same time, I have learnt a lot (not only legal language) so I might not be exactly the same person. As a filmmaker you have to stay curious and maybe angry too. You spend so much time doing a film, so you need to pick the right story. And why should a banana company tell me what films I should do. Or not.
As a company we know more now, have more lawyers as friends. Our great lawyer Lincoln Bandlow is coming to Sundance too. I feel protected.
EDN: Are there special themes or subject matters that are the focus of WG Film when selecting projects? Or does the company have a special focus or view on the overall documentary making process that you follow or promote?
FG: We love local stories with a global understanding. Small stories, character driven, personal, political. Good films for goods sake. We have some great films coming up now, and several other projects in development. As you all know it’s worse than ever financing documentaries. But I don’t think we will give in. We’ll keep going. As most you, dear colleagues.
EDN: WG Film has also been involved in some successful international co-productions like Love Addict (Pernille Rose Grønkjær, 2011, Denmark) and Burma VJ (Anders Østergaard, 2008, Denmark). What are the advantages of being part of a co-production for WG Film and does the company plan to be involved in more in the future?
FG: Yes we have several co-pros ongoing. It’s not a business. The cost of handling a co-pro is quite high, the reporting and stuff is constructed for fiction films with ten times higher budgets. But the bureaucracy is the same. Weird.
But working together with colleagues is always good. You get new friends, you learn, you open doors to each other. I like that. That’s the reason WG film survived all these years. Thanks to our friends and colleagues. People we met through events organized by EDN.
EDN: What are the future plans for you and WG Film?
Plan 1. Surviving.
Plan 2. We have three films that we hope shall be ready within the next 12 month. Great and important projects.
Plan 3. The Swedish release of our film “Love Always, Carolyn. “ a film that opened at Tribeca and Hot Docs last year.
Plan 4. Do the best ever launch of my film in cinemas in Sweden this spring. And in many other countries. Looks promising.
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