Review: Taming the Garden

Salomé Jashi’s The Dazzling Light of Sunset (2016) has the habit of meandering through its community portrait, trailing a small TV news station in the Georgian town of Tsalenjikha, whether following the capture of an owl, a local talent show, or the possibility of a stolen council election. Jashi is honest enough to cover moments in which her own filming becomes an issue for her subjects, such as when the owner of the station laments the likelihood of facing retribution or censure because of the footage Jashi has recorded. But there’s an aloofness to the framing of her subjects, a distance she seems unwilling to bridge, a sympathy she refuses to enter into. Another way of phrasing this: there’s a certain amount of condescension in the way Jashi approaches the residents of the town, a glance cast downwards. This condescending mode continues in her new documentary, Taming the Garden, which treats its main concern obliquely. The motor behind the film’s sometimes amazing images is Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s former prime minister, who retired from politics in early 2021. He does not appear on screen once, but his hobby is amply documented. He deracinates old, enormous trees, and ships them, no matter how arduous the process, to his garden. Hence the surreal, oddly beautiful sight of a gargantuan tree hoisted atop a barge, travelling across the pure bright blue of the Black Sea; or the fabulous sight of a tree transported in the night, backlit and looming over the road as it is hauled to its new location, looking not unlike an ocean liner being brought to its berth. There’s a definite distinction between Jashi’s interior and exterior shot-making: interiors are cramped, shadowy, Pedro Costa-like in composition; exteriors wide and tall, all the more suitable to frame the arboreal. The sound design is rich, too, especially in scenes of the crews preparing to pluck the trees out from their spaces: heavy hydraulic sounds, the buzz of saws, the thunderous crack of wooden limbs felled. But not only is this a portrait of an anthropocene anxiety, a warning about rapacious capital, it’s a portrait of a community with no choice in the matter; Ivanishvili’s money trumps their guilt, since he pays for the construction of new, more accessible roads, and the trees that acted as place markers for their lives, and the lives of communities before them—how many times was loved declared under the shade of its branches?—are carefully uprooted and whisked off. But, like in The Dazzling Light, the director stands too much apart from those she surveys: an irritating scene concerns an old woman who sold a tree on her property—as she and her family sit around a table discussing the sale, the top right hand corner is conspicuously given to a television on which a Georgian talent show is playing. Why is this so emphasised, except to advertise what the director perceives as a lack of cultivation, as ignorance? I don’t see the castigation of people without power as a responsible use of filmmaking: not least when their hands are tied in economic terms. 

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