Taming the Garden (2021) | Film Review
A thought-provoking documentary
by Emily Gevers
‘Do you know the story about the old woman and the tree?’ Thus begins Salomé Jashi’s 2021 documentary Taming the Garden. The film’s opening sequence features images of lush greenery and is accentuated with haunting Georgian choirs. There was this woman, one construction worker tells the other, who sold an ancient tree to a rich man for 40000 Georgian Lari (roughly £9000).
This man is Bidzina Ivanishvili, billionaire and former Prime Minister of Georgia, and this is his story. Well, kind of. Though Ivanishvili never actually appears in the movie and is only referred to peripherally, his vision for his own arboretum is the catalyst of Jashi’s documentary.
The movie follows the unearthing, uprooting, and transportation of giant trees to the Shekvetili Dendrological Park on the coast of the Black Sea.
photo courtesy of IMDb
Though Ivanishvili remains an elusive figure throughout the documentary, the animosity towards him is tangible. Some describe him as a villain, others rumour that the trees he steals prolong his life if they are over a century old.
In order to transport these behemoths, lots of smaller trees and shrubbery have to be destroyed to make way for transportation. Though Ivanishvili seems to offer handsome payment for the trees and is responsible for building roads on which to transport them, the large-scale destruction of nature seems antithetical and leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Many of the uprooted trees have initially been planted by the documentary’s subjects or their ancestors. An especially touching scene shows a group of people solemnly walking behind a tree being carted off as in a funeral march. A woman is crying, making the sign of the cross.
Only in the film’s final moments do we get to see Ivanishvili’s arboretum. Giant trees stand close to each other, tied down with steel ropes, and looking out of place. The return of the Georgian choir underpins this fragmented, somewhat erratic attraction.
Jashi creates an emotional, contemplative documentary through beautiful nature footage and haunting music that succeeds without much dialogue. Fundamentally, the centre of the documentary are the people whose lives have been impacted by Ivanishvili’s fixed idea and, of course, the trees. It raises central questions about humanity’s relationship to nature.
Are Ivanishvili’s actions ethical? Who owns nature? Does anyone? Do you?
You can watch Taming the Garden and other fantastic titles at the Belmont Filmhouse. Student & Young Person memberships are free and grant you access to all regular screenings at 5£, as well as a weekly exclusive screening on Tuesdays at 2£. For more information, go to Membership | Belmont Filmhouse.