The poetic documentary Taming the Garden tracks the arduous relocation of massive, ancient trees from villages throughout the Republic of Georgia to a personal arboretum owned by billionaire and former Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Filmmaker Salomé Jashi relays these events in quiet, studied takes that incrementally reveal an underlying anger at the absurdity of this rich man’s folly. Big World Pictures, a label in the OCN distro stable that focuses on recent world cinema, should be thanked for giving this gem a home. Perfect for fans of filmmakers whose work rides the line between naturalism and lyricism, like Werner Herzog and Abbas Kiarostami. Highly Recommended.
It’s the kind of undertaking that brings to mind the plot of Fitzcarraldo. In Werner Herzog’s film, the opera-loving title character convinces a local indigenous population in South America to help him drag a riverboat over a mountain to facilitate his rubber export scheme. (Herzog famously didn’t fake this during filming, and used the local indigenous population to, well, drag a riverboat over a mountain to show it in his movie.) In Salomé Jashi’s new documentary Taming the Garden, there are many such riverboat-sized objects being bizarrely relocated: ancient trees, several stories tall, and some as heavy as a thousand tons.
Dozens of these trees are uprooted from various villages throughout the Republic of Georgia and transported over land and sea to the personal forest (or “dendrological park”) of billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Jashi’s film shows us moments from various stages of transport for many different trees that Ivanishvili acquired, but the footage is organized so that these moments feel narratively continuous – like we’re watching one journey from uprooting to replanting.
Taming the Garden is process-oriented, and the first third of the film documents the insane work that goes into preparing a massive tree and the surrounding landscape for this kind of uprooting. Jashi’s approach is image-driven. She refrains from adding narration, letting the idle chit-chat of the workers start to fill in the details of what these men are doing here and why. There’s no main character (unless one counts the unseen Ivanishvili who sets the “plot” in motion).
Many sequences play out in locked-down wide shots; the few moving shots in the film are accomplished by locking the camera down on a moving vehicle. The pace is deliberate but not boring, and Jashi and her co-cinematographer Goga Devdariani manage to consistently find ways to capture the action in ways that are unexpectedly poetic and sometimes shockingly funny. A massive wide shot of a large excavator entering the side of a shot, then muscling its way across a beach to get at an even larger tree it is about to dig up, made me laugh for reasons I can’t even fully articulate.
Once the trees start moving, we are shown more of how their removal impacts their villages of origin. Communities and families discuss being bought off with a pittance or with a newly paved road – a selling point that really mostly just helps the workmen transport the trees. Fences are knocked down and front yards are torn up as the trees imperfectly make their way out of town. Some villagers take photos and video on their phones or follow the trees as they leave, while many older people weep or lament the loss of their shared history.
A signature image features a massive tree, surrounded by its own patch of green grass, traveling on a freighter in the middle of the empty Black Sea. It’s simultaneously beautiful and absurd. Jashi saves the most bitterly absurd moment for the ending, when we get to see the trees in their new home at Shekvetili Dendrological Park. As solemn choral music kicks in on the soundtrack, a series of sprinklers come alive and over-water all the trees. The organic is made ridiculously synthetic. It’s another solid unexpected laugh, but one that sticks in your throat.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Taming the Garden comes on a Region A-locked Blu-ray, in a standard keepcase. A booklet is included, featuring some stills and an essay by Jerry White. The disc loads to a Big World Pictures logo before transitioning to a low-key video menu with clips from the film.
Shot digitally, Taming the Garden is offered in an AVC-encoded 1080p 1.78:1 presentation that shows much more care than a standard-issue documentary. Imagery is crisp and shows remarkable depth, even in massive wide shots with multiple planes of activity. A few early shots look a little smeary when there is action within the frame, but this issue quickly goes away. Jashi and her co-cinematographer Goga Devdariani seem to be working with available light at all times, but even the night-time and low-light footage looks well-balanced. No crushing or blocky encoding. English subtitles are burned-in on the image.
Ambience is the name of the game here, with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track that evokes serene settings and then juxtaposes them with the noise of chainsaws, work cranes, and other industrial intrusions. A few choral pieces pop up on the soundtrack, and they sound warm and well-supported. Dialogue is typically incidental, but it sounds organic in the mix. The language is Georgian, with burned-in English subtitles.
Bonus features aren't extensive for this release. In addition to the interesting essay, we have a deleted scene from the film and the trailer.
In his accompanying booklet essay, critic Jerry White points to an Iranian influence on director Salomé Jashi’s filmmaking style. This insight feels extremely apt, as I think world cinema fans who enjoy the poetic visual sensibilities and unusual narrative strategies of a director like Abbas Kiarostami will find much to treasure in Taming the Garden. It is a disarmingly beautiful film that also communicates a tremendous anger at the way power and money has been wielded to literally ruin the homes of hundreds, so that one billionaire could have his own unique playground. Highly Recommended.