Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary in 2008 The Garden has been hailed by critics as the most astute and powerful political film of the year. Filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy's (award-winning director of OT: Our Town) brilliantly captures, in a series of explosive and wrenching turn of events, the ways greedy developers, inept politicians and self-serving community leaders can run rough shod over the lives of working class families fighting to save the 14-acre urban farm that has become the very source of survival. Equal parts The Wire & Harlan County, USA , The Garden, exposes the fault lines in American society and raises crucial and challenging questions about liberty, equality, and justice for the poorest and most vulnerable among us. As the battle lines are drawn between this group of low-income families struggling to protect a 14-acre urban farm against a backdrop of grey and hardened skyscrapers, their cause became an international sensation that drew the attention of numerous notable activists and politicians, including Dennis Kucinich, Joan Baez, Danny Glover, and Willie Nelson.
This 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary may have been made on the fly and a shoestring, but the impact of the issues it addresses about race, politics, class, wealth, corruption, and the heat of human emotion more than make up for the patchwork of video interviews and jerky vérité action. The subject is the South Central Farm, a 14-acre patch of blighted city blocks located in the area of Los Angeles that was terrorized by the Rodney King riots in 1992. After acquiring the land from a notorious developer to aid in the healing, the city entrusted it to a group that grew in number at the same time it grew bounteous plots of fruits and vegetables, making the project the largest community garden in the United States by its heyday in 2004. But when backroom and decidedly un-public dealings returned the property to its original owner, the gardeners were faced with imminent eviction and evisceration of a huge patch of green that had become such a powerful symbol in the lives of the mostly Latino and African-American residents who cared for it. The Garden
chronicles with sometimes gut-wrenching clarity the ensuing internecine wars that erupted between all the parties involved. The gardeners are the focal point, and director Scott Hamilton Kennedy clearly throws down on the side he has established as right (which is hard to dispute). They get mad, and they do their damnedest to get even through every legal means at their disposal to prevent the destruction of this incredible urban oasis. Opposing forces and characters include a city council member who clearly shows conflicts of interest in her on-camera remarks, in unearthed documents, and through the comments of others whose interviews allude to the frightening political danger of going against her wishes. There's a well-known black community organizer whose history of fiery activism gained her a valued reputation that gets dragged through the dirt when the Garden issue becomes her personal Waterloo. There's the shadowy developer, who is seen only in deposition footage and heard reading a statement, but who represents vindictive greed, avarice, and the political force of money. Famous faces walk through to lend support, including Daryl Hannah, Danny Glover, Joan Baez, and Willie Nelson, and politicians waltz around to capitalize on the controversy or to offer words of encouragement that only fade into disinterest (Dennis Kucinich makes a tepid campaign stop that helps no one). The multiple appearances of LA city council member and later mayor Antonio Villaraigosa present a fascinating symbol of how political winds can shift passions and priorities when bigger deals are happening behind the scenes.
DVD special features include a lot of additional background material, including extended interview segments and more history of the project's origins and escalation of tensions. There's also an interesting conversation between Kennedy and Movie City News film critic David Poland that lends more depth to the subtext of what was happening between the parties in the midst of all the tension. And the tension is palpable throughout The Garden. As an environmental documentary and as a political thriller, the story is not only moving, it's stirring and suspenseful, with an ending that's about as bad as you could imagine. There is victory in the fight itself, but if it all makes you angry, good; if it makes you motivated to rise to your own battles about fighting over the difference between right and wrong, all the better. --Ted Fry