Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2021: "Taming the Garden"

Michael Hayward

It's a striking image: a solitary tugboat pushes a barge carrying a massive deciduous tree, across an expanse of water towards a distant horizon. That tree is one of approximately two hundred huge specimens of many different varieties, most of them over one hundred years old, which have been purchased by agents for Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. All of these trees are destined for a private park that Ivanishvili has been constructing at enormous expense. Why? It appears that Ivanishvili has embarked upon this quixotic and hubristic undertaking simply because he has the money to make it happen—as well the political clout to ensure that any protest is quashed, or brushed aside.

Much of the footage in Taming the Garden, a documentary directed by Salomé Jashi, was filmed from stationary cameras, and as a result we watch the proceedings (as the villagers themselves watched) from the sidelines, as if looking through a picture frame, while enormous excavators crawl across a once-bucolic landscape on massive metal treads. Trenches are dug to allow drilling equipment to push metal pipes through the subsoil beneath each tree, severing the smaller roots in order to permit the root ball to be wrapped for transportation. We watch as local roadways are widened, and any overhanging branches severed to permit the double-wide trailers to inch their way to water, where rock causeways have been constructed to allow the tree to be transferred onto a waiting barge for the final leg.

From a purely technical perspective this is a fantastic—an epic—undertaking. But it also feels as if we're watching the unfolding of a slow-motion catastrophe. We can't help wondering: what will become of the devastated yards and fields where these huge trees once stood? How will it feel to local residents once the trucks have carried their trees away, and the windows of their houses frame a brutal moonscape, instead looking out upon a tapestry of leaves?

Most of us are cynical enough by now to know that, when those with money have obtained what they want, their attentions will turn elsewhere. We know that it is the sellers of these trees, not the buyer, who will be left to deal with the environmental consequences.

Watching the film, you long to hear directly from those who were persuaded to sell their trees, some of which had provided shade and shelter for generations. But we quickly get the sense that no-one wants their criticisms to go on record. Aware of the camera's implacable gaze, the homeowners and villagers cut their comments short, or glance aside as if embarrassed. Perhaps their reticence is due to fear: of direct or indirect reprisal from one of the richest men in the country, a man with friends in high places, who apparently still harbours political ambitions of his own.

A narrator would have helped viewers of Taming the Garden gain a better understanding of the context in which all of this takes place. But the lack of narration, and the scarcity of dialogue, is—oddly—also one of the film's strengths. We watch in relative silence as massive machinery wreaks havoc on a rural landscape; we're left with a feeling of helplessness, and we mourn, as the villagers themselves must have mourned.

This article, written by a Georgian journalist, gives some additional background on Ivanishvili's park; it includes this observation from one of those who—reluctantly—sold his family's tree to Ivanishvili: "You can do anything when you have a lot of money and you live in a poor country.”

There will be one in-theatre screening of Taming the Garden on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 at The Cinematheque's theatre. Tickets can be purchased at the VIFF website. See here for more information on the film. You can view a trailer for Taming the Garden here.



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