Portrait of a Garden
"Don't we have anything more important to do than the thinning of plums?" "Like what?"
Portrait of a Garden is a meditative and thoughtful Dutch film made by Rosie Stapel. It documents a year as it unfolds upon a modest Dutch estate, where the orchard and kitchen gardens have been brought back from dereliction by Daan van de Have, who has now tended them for several decades.
Daan and Jan, an octogenarian pruning master who mourns the loss of his craft in his country, spend most of their time evaluating and clipping the dozens of varieties of pear, plum, gooseberry, grape and mulberry trees and vines. Every time a plant is pruned, sown or harvested we are shown its name so we can chart its progress over the year. Daan's real obsession is a pear arbour and the rehabilitation of the historic espaliers, those fruit trees cut and trained to grow flat against stone garden walls or glasshouses and to grow the maximum amount of fruit. While I can see the historic interest in this practice, I couldn't help wondering if so much relentless cultivation is necessary. Perhaps something this labor-intensive isn't always artisanal and beautiful but a little obsessive. But what do I know...
Supporting characters include a head gardener, Daan's brother the chef, a host of apprentices and a few chickens. The work involved in the enterprise is staggering but then, so too is the abundance of the harvest. Portrait of a Garden engages with many very relevant questions about food security, use of local ingredients, how best to feed cities, protection of arable land, the challenge of small business, the devaluation of food, loss of knowledge and the dangers of monocultures and artificial pesticides. All these topics come up naturally in the quiet conversations between the men as they work. And that is quite amazing since they are men of few words.
It is a brilliant tactic that we see no aerial shots or overviews of the estate at all until about two thirds of the way through, and then we see the scale, the symmetry and the setting as well as a very nearby freeway (unexpected!). There is a very particular visual style at play here and it keeps the film engaging. Since I have been volunteering on urban farms for five years I found the film of special interest. There was a lot to learn—some of it very particular, some universal. The miracle of plant growth in its many forms never looked so delicious.
Plays 30th September 2016 1:00 PM at Vancity Theatre and 2nd October 2016 7:00 PM at International Village 9
12 October 2016 4:00 PM at VIFF at The Cinematheque