Second Nature

June 09, 2021

THE SUPERRICH WANT, and can have, luscious gardens of their own. We know the gardens of Versailles, the chateau overlooking them representative of the extreme indulgences of the aristocracy that helped bring on the French Revolution. Those famous grounds were planned by royal architects and constructed through the toil of the working poor. But where do wealthy people’s private parks come from today, in our late-capitalist aftermath? Well, generally speaking, the same place. Nature is, again, plucked from the public, or from private owners tempted by payouts (as the middle class disappears, regular people are less likely to refuse what on its face looks like easy money), and transported to newly manicured enclosures. Today, hired contractors (their NDAs signed) relocate “trophy trees” to sprawling estates across the US and abroad. It’s a lucrative industry for landscaping and building companies, whose laborers devote hours upon hours to transplanting large living matter from one environment to some strange other.

Salomé Jashi’s first documentary, Taming the Garden, charts the process of acquiring such trophies—two hundred of them—for the former Georgian prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. To this day the most powerful man in Georgia and a supporter of Putin’s military agenda, Ivanishvili, through his lawyers and contractors, pays off villagers throughout the country to relinquish the gorgeous beeches, maples, and elms they and their families have planted for shade and beauty. His agents promise these people roads through their remote towns and will throw them the equivalent of $100 or so to cut down any other trees that stand in the way of the extremely involved removal process. These villagers have ideas about what is happening to their trees and what’s going on with Ivanishvili. There are feelings of anger, violence, complacency, suspicion, and acceptance. One auntie (as all elder women are called), sitting across the table from a young man and his baby, rails against tree removers and their so-far empty promises of infrastructure and restoration (enormous ditches are left where the trees once spread their roots). The young man seems exasperated at the complaining; he’s desperate for a road and has a lot invested in believing that one will materialize for their trouble.

From the way Jashi depicts the removal process—both formally and ideologically—it’s unclear why these people have chosen to cede ground, or been coerced into it. (For many, a bit of money seems to be a compelling enough replacement for the trees, as is infrastructure; but we also see these same locals mourning their trees, complaining about collateral damage, and arguing with the workers about the terms of their contracts. None of these episodes is ever investigated.) Taming the Garden is a film that lyrically abstracts a situation that has been rigorously reported on in Georgian media, where the image of a barge moving a gigantic tree across the sea made a splash. Jashi herself makes no overt appearance in the film. Instead, her proximity to the villagers, workers, and even Ivanishvili’s garden becomes its own character, as elusive as the billionaire himself. Her stunning atmospheric footage of the enormous trees (fifteen stories tall) and intimate look into the workers’ and locals’ discussions have rightly impressed audiences. And to render such an extraordinary process almost mythological and aesthetically eerie is a compelling choice. But the film refuses to reveal how Jashi, who is Georgian, obtained access, how and why she began to document this phenomenon, and what her relationship is to the communities losing their trees.

Historically, both mainstream and independent documentary-filmmakers have been criticized for adopting an anthropological approach to subjects whose material conditions are much more precarious than their own. Yet such critiques often sidestep a tricky binary native to the practice: that of art and information. Art documentaries, often formally intricate and narratively unconventional, are perhaps more likely to be exploitative, in that they foreground the filmmakers’ talents while extracting dramatic value from the subjects’ personal hardships and performances of those hardships (whether affected or not) on-screen. But usually, only the former have the potential to get paid for their efforts. While primarily informative or investigative films may also cross over into exploitation, they have the advantage of a baked-in defense: revealing human-rights violations, getting at “the truth,” fighting for some great cause. The field produces countless movies that fall squarely in one camp or the other, art or information, a division the filmmakers preserve by dismissing their own role in the stories they are telling. Documentary filmmakers who find creative and productive ways to emphasize their positionality—to openly acknowledge the inherently autobiographical aspects of nonfiction storytelling—can avoid picking a lane between art and information; the path reveals itself.

Jashi, it appears, was at pains to keep her presence at a remove. Most of the time in Taming the Garden, subjects try to avoid looking at the camera; when they do speak, they address no one. They stand next to the trees to whom they’re saying goodbye. When Jashi and her crew finally visit Ivanishvili’s island grounds—under what circumstances we never learn—no one appears to be home. The trophy tree, as both a concept and a living (or reconstructed) thing, seems to benefit from this absence. No longer belonging to the people and their families, they are now essentially pieces of art in a gallery. In the meantime, Ivanishvili, a prolific art collector, has stealthily transmitted his own worldview into the fabric of the film. Jashi’s grand and inquisitive images are themselves collected and, as such, emptied of any significant relationship to those within them.

— Cassie Da Costa

Taming the Garden will screen as part of the Docville International Documentary Film Festival in Belgium from June 9 to June 19.