By Jeff Hake
It is the greatest fear of every leader and member of a community garden or farm: that the plot of land they have cultivated and come to consider home will be taken from them. The 2008 documentary The Garden, shown February 3 by the Boston Gardeners’ Council at the South End branch of the Boston Public Library, captures the struggle of the South Central Farmers to retain their Los Angeles urban farm in the face of development and corruption. This human drama is driven by the raw omnipresence of its cinematography, though its emotional appeal is hindered by an activist bias that muddles and omits important facts of the case.
The film opens with historical perspective, describing the South Central Farm as being borne out of the ashes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, with the local community first moving onto the acreage in 1994. The farmers, mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants, quietly give testimony on the peace of their plots. Their sense of place is beautifully displayed with early morning cultivation of their land, and the wideness of the camera angle allows the viewer to glimpse both the expanse of this 14-acre urban paradise and the chain link fences that separate it from the concrete jungle beyond.
This unlikely serenity is quickly turned on its head. The cameras were rolling on the morning of January 4, 2004 when the farmers arrived to find an eviction notice tied to their fence. Shock prevailed on the faces of the farmers, unprepared for their land to be taken from them. Tension quickly mounted as the elected representatives of the garden decided to fight back against the city council’s order and save their farm.
The film follows the legal tit-for-tat that ensues, heightening an otherwise mundane process into a tense battle. The footage is exquisitely edited, cutting smoothly between action on the ground, up-close and personal interviews, and voiceless on-screen narration. The viewer bears witness to everything from key court proceedings to impassioned public meetings at the farm to the internal, sometimes violent squabbles between the farm community members. This intimate detailing of their struggle ultimately spans two and a half years, displaying the willingness of a community to go to any length to save what they consider rightfully their own. An unabashed depiction of righteousness versus the law, the climax of this film draws tears at times and chills at others and is worthy of any Hollywood script.
Yet, there are classic signs of disingenuousness throughout the film. “Bad guys” are filmed from a distance, off-center, in poorly-lit areas or with high exposure under fluorescent lights; the “good guys” are captured tilling their soil and sweating from their activist toil, the camera coming in close so as not to miss any facial tic that could betray emotion.
As said before, this film was showed by the Boston Gardeners’ Council, a part of the Boston Natural Areas Network focused on community gardening. Discussion afterward was lead by Betsy Johnson, president of the South End Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust. The discussion served to moderate some of the binary positions that the film sets out, distilling myths small and large. These include the garden’s location (in an industrial area of Los Angeles, far removed from “the middle of downtown” or any residential neighborhoods, as it was portrayed by one community leader), the likelihood that many of the farmers were growing food to sell without having ever paid for the land that was benefiting them, and the fact that the South Central Farmers rejected the legal and organizational help offered by Los Angeles community gardening groups when those groups heard of the eviction notice. Few documentaries come free of bias, and stories as complicated as this are never done justice by film. However, the numerous intentional omissions on the part of filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy oversimplify the complexities and perpetuate a myth rather than the facts.
“The Garden” is not a history, but it is a tangible parable. Lessons on racism, corruption, and community-building run rampant throughout. If short on facts, it compensates with real emotion and powerful story-building. I recommend “The Garden” to anyone who is willing to watch with an open heart and a skeptical mind.