The Garden Directed by: Scott Hamilton Kennedy Cast: Tezozomoc, Rufina Juarez, Jan Perry, Juanita Tate Running Time: 1 hr 20 min Rating: Unrated Release Date: June 12, 2009
Plot: Documentary about a community garden in South Central, Los Angeles that's going to be shut down. The gardeners get together to try to keep the developer who bought the property from evicting them. From City Hall to celebrities, the gardeners try everything they can think of to keep their farm.
Who’s It For? Anyone who likes documentaries, especially when they have a strong point of view.
Expectations: The Garden is up for this year's Best Documentary Oscar, so I expected good things. I was looking for an underdog story with a triumphant ending.
Tezozomoc and Rufina Juarez: When the gardeners come together after their receipt of the first eviction notice, they elect Tezo and Rufina to lead their attempt to save the garden. We don't know any of their backstory, how much education they have or whether they were politically conscious before the start of the film. What we do know is that both gardeners have a strong sense of justice. Rufina speaks well, she's passionate and heartfelt, believes sincerely in her cause. At times, she breaks down emotionally, especially when the farmers fight amongst themselves. But she's spurred on by her sense of righteousness and Tezo. They grow into really strong leaders and it's a great transformation. Score: 7
Juanita Tate: Founder of Concerned Citizens of LA, Tate's exactly the person you'd expect to advocate for the Community Garden. Instead, she's adamantly opposed to the gardeners' cause, speaking out in City Council meetings and agitating behinds the scenes to make sure the garden is destroyed. She seems to be involved in shady backroom deals to give up the garden in exchange for her pet project, a soccer field. But her fiery interviews are what you'll remember. Tate speaks as passionately as the gardeners, but feels that they should let it go. She seems mad that anyone were dare doubt her good intentions, and seems really pissed to be on the less sympathetic side of the debate. I wish all of the interviews in this film were as fascinating. Score: 9
Talking: The Gardeners are primarily latino so a lot of the dialogue is in Spanish with English subtitles. The characters speak from the heart, so you get some really beautiful, if imperfectly worded speeches. Score: 7
Sights: No fancy camera work or cranes, like in Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, another Oscar nominee for Best Documentary. Instead, Kennedy focuses on the faces of his characters. Well, except for the absolutely great video of the cops descending on the garden as the gardeners make their last stand. Score: 8
Sounds: There's some music in the film, mostly live performances. It's all very natural, but not really that exciting. Score: 5
The Garden begins with a group of people coming together to fight for their community garden. They've just been told they have two months until they'll be evicted. What follows could make a good political thriller. Through city council meetings, court dates and protest rallies, the gardeners work every angle to make their case. Kennedy follows right along side, clearly empathizing with the gardeners. We get limited access to their opponents, including the owner of the land, who only speaks via a video deposition for the trial. Despite this, he goes through documents, attempting to piece together why the opposition fights so hard to destroy this garden.
Kennedy watches this fight get lost not in court, but in the backroom of a city council chamber. It's fascinating to watch people fight so hard, achieve what they set out to get and still lose. That's what surprised me so much, the deck is stacked from the beginning and winning seems impossible. At the end of this film, I was so mad. I wanted every politician in this movie out of office, and I'm sure that Councilwoman Jan Perry and LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa won't be thrilled by their portrayals in the film. After watching it, I wanted to send angry letters to their offices. Maybe build a garden, too, despite my black thumbs.
Final Score: 8/10