REVIEW: ‘Taming the Garden’ – A Haunting Vision Of Vanity And Humanity

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Taming the Garden - But Why Tho (1)

Few documentaries could capture greed and excessive so beautifully, so viscerally, and so alarmingly as Salomé Jashi‘s Taming the Garden. Over the past several decades, billionaire former authoritarian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of Georgia has been buying ancient, giant trees from across the Georgian countryside, uprooting them, sending them down to the Black Sea, and floating them to his private dendrological estate. Taming the Garden captures the journeys of many of these giants, and the communities are torn apart in their wakes.

It’s impossible to succinctly describe the monumental tragedy this documentary bears witness to. Unlike so many films of environmental crisis, where the atrocities committed against the planet are obscure, the humans involved behind corporate veils, or where they attempt to pin our undoing as a planet upon the human collective instead of any individual contributors, Taming the Garden is about exactly one man’s hubris and the direct impact it unleashed on countless of his countrymen. The are moments of beauty and grandeur, feats of incredible engendering, and mixed emotions. Still, ultimately, the great success of this film begins with the fact that its focus is so narrow, despite how grandiose it truly is.

The beauty of the filmmaking itself is on perfect display from the onset. It begins with huge, wide, and deep shots meant to make its human subjects and even their machines look tiny to the majesty of the forests around them until it switches to closeup shots of these unnatural presences to emphasize the outsized impact they can have despite their short stint and small stature in the earth’s grand timeline.

Captured just as well as the human impact of this vanity is the way that folks have to mythologize Ivanishvili taking the trees. They talk about it like it’s an old fable: “The granny and the man who bought her tree,” making up rationales and stories about why he wants the trees and how surely he’ll go for all the birds next. “I read in the newspaper they prolong his life as long as the tree is over a century old. That’s what they said,” argued one family.

The movie is painful to watch, though. The range of emotions the folks exhibit is enormous. There’s bluster, with some following the claims that the money paid for the trees will support their family for a while or that the roads being built to drive the trees will help their villages in the long run. There’s an air of being downtrodden to so many of the defenders like they’re so consigned to whatever their fate may be that they don’t care what happens, and supporting the tree removal is just the path of least resistance. And there are some people who are against the project from the beginning, abhorring its violence of it from the onset. But it’s the grades in between that are the hardest. The documentary is filmed as though the subjects don’t even know a camera is trained on them, so they are free to speak their minds. And when they do, there is so much remorse, pleading, and fighting with one another over the trees.

Folks sit out to watch and gawk at it in the dead of night as if they know somebody is committing a robbery, but everyone is still letting them get away with it anyway. They bicker over meaningless questions: will they trim more branches when it arrives? Is the base too wide to move it? Will it die when it’s replanted? So many questions about how to move the trees that rarely does anybody stop to ask whether they even should. There’s a clear veneer of nihilism spread overtop a deep sadness that is consistently mirrored through stark imagery as we watch these ancient giants be mangled and moved in the name of a man who simply does not care about his impact.

Taming the Garden is harrowing and haunting. Its beauty as a film only makes the deeply sad, horrendously selfish story of utter destruction that much more upsetting. There is no better way this story could have been depicted than how Salomé Jashi does, offering a moral quandary with no easy answers but an obvious conclusion.

Taming the Garden premieres in New York City on September 30th.

Taming the Garden
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Taming the Garden is harrowing and haunting. Its beauty as a film only makes the deeply sad, horrendously selfish story of utter destruction that much more upsetting. There is no better way this story could have been depicted than how Salomé Jashi does, offering a moral quandary with no easy answers but an obvious conclusion.

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