CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 20. . . . June 6, 2003
Film director and editor Kelly Saxberg, who lists Pioneer Quest as one of her many credits, and professor and researcher Ron Harpelle, who specializes in the social history of the banana industry in Central America, have joined forces to create this 46-minute documentary. The title refers to the north/south split between Canadian consumers and the people who work for meager wages on banana plantations in Central America. Using interviews as well as black and white archival film clips, the documentary traces the development of the banana growing and exporting industry. It begins in a grocery store where the grocer explains the importance of the banana as a loss leader and the single most popular item in the produce department (banana sales represent 15 cents of every dollar spent on produce). From there, viewers are taken to a major distribution centre to observe how bananas are shipped, stored and dispatched to fruit markets and grocery stores. Viewers learn an abundance of facts (some of them mind-boggling) about this fruit which Canadians eat at a rate of nine billion per year and which is considered a staple food, ranking behind only rice, wheat and maize in developing tropical and sub tropical countries. A Banana Museum is shown, its banana-related items ranging from the clever to the bizarre. Then the film shifts its focus to the history of the United Fruit Company (now called Chiquita) in Honduras and the plight of its workers - entire families and generations of families that did virtually every job on the plantation for pathetically low wages. Their homes, schools, hospitals, even their furniture, appliances and dishes belonged to the company, and, while the workers lived in quaint huts, their employers lived in huge mansions on the other side of the fenced compound. As well, many workers succumbed to illness and even death from exposure to the extremely toxic pesticides that they used to spray the banana plants. In 1954, when labourers wanted a share in the post-war prosperity, tension developed between the workers and the company. Today, many independent farmers are growing bananas on small parcels of land while the Chiquita company continues to thrive at the expense of its labourers, many of whom have lost their jobs due to technological advances which have replaced 75% of the workforce. Hence, they have also lost their homes, medical care, etc. because these things were provided by the company. Several workers are interviewed in the film, one of them a woman, recently laid-off, who now must support herself and five family members on only $100 a month. The remainder of the film explains how all of the business practices mentioned in the historical segments contribute to the extremely low cost of bananas in Canada, despite the labour involved in growing and harvesting them and the distance bananas must travel from Central America to this country. Finally, consumers are urged to buy only products marked "fair trade." These products guarantee fair wages and working conditions for the workers.
The filmmakers are very successful at getting their political point across. (North American consumers, by and large, have been kept in the dark about the issues of poverty, racism and environmental hazards presented in the film.) Their information has been extremely well researched and not only provides discussion topics for students, but also encourages social action on the part of the viewer. The contrast, or split, between Canada and Central America is cleverly done, with the first portion of the video largely positive and upbeat, while the bleak history segments (the bleakness even more pronounced by the black and white footage) are sad and somewhat depressing. Interviews with the Honduran plantation workers could have had more of a dramatic impact had the camera followed them into their company-provided homes and shown the conditions in which the people live. In some ways, the film is a tad ambitious and somewhat lengthy. A few of the scenes could have been deleted without any break in the film's continuity and flow.
Honest and thought-provoking, but a bit pricey for school budgets.
Recommended with reservations.
Gail Hamilton is a teacher-librarian at Bird's Hill School in East St. Paul, MB.
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