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DVD Review: The Garden (2008)

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Most big-budget political thrillers place their scenarios right at the top rungs of power — the federal government. It’s flashy, it’s high-powered and it’s where most of us envision large stakes political shenanigans taking place.

The Garden takes the sensibility of a political thriller and plops it right down in the middle of a local brouhaha, where shady city council dealings prove to be just as interesting as their big brother counterparts. And, it’s a true story.

Nominated for the best documentary Oscar in 2008, The Garden had the misfortune of going up against the sublime Man on Wire. Otherwise, I could see this fascinating and engrossing doc taking home the top prize.

Filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy tells the story of the largest urban garden in the United States — a 14-acre plot of land in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. The garden was created shortly after the Rodney King riots, and for years was tended by working-class Hispanic families who would eat some of the produce and sell some of it.

In 2004, the owner of the land presented the gardeners with an eviction notice. He had originally planned to use the site for a trash incinerator, which never came to fruition, and he declared the land wasn’t being used for its intended purpose.

At this point in the film, the situation looks unfortunate, but inevitable. The 300-plus families who tended their individual gardens didn’t own land and this guy did. What are you going to do?

But soon the story gets plunged into a whirlwind of backroom dealings, self-serving politicians, and “community organizers” who hardly seem to have their communities’ best interests in mind. Apparently, the city had taken over ownership of the land, but didn’t use it for the purpose Ralph Horowitz, the owner, had in mind initially. When the city sold the land back to Horowitz, it did so in a questionably legal way.

In an amazing act of coalescence, many of the farmers band together, find a lawyer, and pursue the case, eventually getting an injunction to stop the eviction and raising the $16 million dollars Horowitz wants for the land.

The Garden is a superbly edited documentary, and Kennedy fashions his scenes together without the intrusion of talking heads.  The interviews are fairly sparse and much more naturalistic than the typical documentary format which allows the story to simply flow out of the footage.

The film is rife with political and social quandaries, but never feels heavy-handed, although it’s easy to tell with whom our sympathies are supposed to belong. However, in this tale, for the most part, it is hard not to side with the farmers in many respects. Kennedy’s film is straightforward in its presentation of the facts, and it makes for one hell of a real-life thriller.

The DVD comes equipped with a number of special features, including a commentary track with Kennedy, two producers, and one of the key players in the saga. Other extras include a good deal of extended footage as well as an excellent interview with Kennedy, who shares a hilarious story about his experience with Anne Hathaway and the press photographer corps at the Oscars, among many other things.

The Garden is real-life drama at its best.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • ddpalmer

    Did you watch the film and/or do any research? Horowitz had nothing to do with the incinerator. The city took his land for the incinerator with a provision that Horowitz could buy it back if the land wasn’t used for that purpose. They didn’t use it for the incinerator so he bought the land back.