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MONTREAL—Coca-Cola may be one of the world’s most visible brands, but there's one part of their operations they don't want you to see.
Early this week, organizers with the Cinema Politica documentary screening network received a letter from lawyers representing the $20-billion US multinational. The letter threatens action if Cinema Politica screens The Coca-Cola Case, a newly released film critical of the company’s labour practices. Cinema Politica is set to kick off an international tour of the film tomorrow with a screening in Montreal.
In the letter, the lawyer claims the film is defamatory and statements by certain characters violate a confidentiality agreement surrounding the mediated outcome of the court case. The film's co-directors maintain all the information and statements in the film—while not necessarily easy to find—are publicly available and therefore fair game. German Gutierrez, who co-directed the film with Carmen Garcia, says although Coke had already attempted to block the film, the directors believed they had reached an agreement with the company.
"During the shoot they approached one of the main characters to ask us to cut two scenes from the film. We decided not to [because] the information is all publicly available," he explains. "Then we reached an agreement that [the company would not interfere with screenings] on two conditions. One is that Coke's lawyers can attend all screenings. [Two], that we inform Coke of all screenings all over the planet. So now, with this letter to Cinema Politica, we are surprised."
Coca-Cola's legal counsel did not respond to a request for an interview about why they sent the letter now. The film has already screened in Canada—including an extended run last fall at a Montreal documentary film festival—and around the world, without objection from the company.
"[Coke is] trying to use this momentum to...censor the documentary, because they see Cinema Politica for what we are: a student-run, grassroots organization," says Ezra Winton, programing director for the group. "Lawyers think it would be easier to censor the film in the hands of a grassroots organization. They also see that the film didn't quietly run the festival circuit and then disappear; it's still screening in over two dozen Cinema Politica locales in Canada and overseas."
While Winton says they are taking the precaution of consulting a lawyer, Cinema Politica plans to go ahead with their screenings in over a dozen cities in Canada and a half-dozen internationally.
"It's kind of Orwellian to think that lawyers could censor a film that documents one group's struggle for basic labour rights and accountability from their employer. It says that large corporations are beyond criticism in documentary films and elsewhere and that's a dangerous precedent," says Winton. "We need more [criticism] through popular media like film so [corporations] can be held accountable for their practices when it comes to labour rights and water issues."
The Coca-Cola Case, co-produced by Argus Films and the National Film Board of Canada, follows American lawyers Daniel Kovalik and Terry Collingsworth, along with activist Ray Rogers, as they pursue Coke through the law—over charges of murder, torture and kidnapping in Colombia and Guatemala—and through public opinion—with the international "Killer Coke" campaign.
Colombia has the highest rate of violence against union organizers in the world and workers who attempt to organize unions in Coca-Cola bottling plants are no exception. Violence towards these workers, including the murder of organizer Isidor Gil, prompted Kovalik and Collingsworth to launch a suit under the US Alien Tort Rights Act, allowing US companies to be pursued for crimes committed outside the US. Gutierrez and Garcia were inspired by this attempt to hold Coke accountable.
"Coke is a successful company: they've made money for past 100 years; they are an icon all over the world. Why doesn't Coke split the cake a little bit more with its workers? It isn't going to change [the company's] life," says Gutierrez.
Beyond the company's alleged human rights abuses, both Gutierrez and Winton say there are important reasons for this film to screen at universities and colleges. Coke, they point out, has been heavily criticized for its attempts to gain exclusivity contracts on campuses, effectively banning any other company's beverages—including beverages they don't produce, such as soy milk. In two instances, at the Universities of British Columbia and Calgary, Coke attempted to ban new drinking fountains because they competed with bottled water sales on campus, according to Winton.
"They're strong-arming students to block access to drinking water and force them to buy bottled water," he says. “That's problematic and, for very good reasons, students across the country aren't happy with this situation.”
Film-goers will get the chance to voice those opinions. In keeping with Cinema Politica's focus on fostering debate, discussions will follow all Canadian screening dates, some with the directors and "Killer Coke" organizer Ray Rogers.
Winton admits it isn't easy dealing with some of the controversy and legal threats that come with screening political documentaries—this isn't the first time they've been pressured to cancel screenings—but feels it vindicates the work of the filmmakers and Cinema Politica.
"For one of the world's most successful corporations to put in the effort to shut down this tour illustrates that the filmmakers are doing something right," he says, "and that we are doing something right, by circulating and screening the film."
The Coca-Cola Case screening series launches January 18 at 7:30pm at Concordia University in Montreal, followed by a Q&A with Ray Rogers, German Gutierrez and Carmen Garcia. Find the full schedule, watch the trailer and interviews, and find out more, including dates for planned theatrical releases.
This article was originally published by the Media Co-op.
Tim McSorley is Media Analysis editor with The Dominion.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.