February 23, 2009

Cinema verité

From February 18 to February 22, The National Archives hosted the fifth annual free screenings of Academy Award nominees in four categories- Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, Live Action Short Film, and Animated Short Film- at the William G. McGowan Theater. The screenings are presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in partnership with The Charles Guggenheim Center for the Documentary Film and the Foundation for the National Archives. On Sunday February 22 I attended the screening of The Garden, nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s 81st Academy Awards.

Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s The Garden (2008) examines the legal battle that resulted from the city of Los Angeles’ sale of a 14 acre expanse of land in a South Central neighborhood that had been developed by local residents into one of the country’s largest community gardens. The film, which debuted in June at the American Film Institute /Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, SILVERDOCS, vividly explores the South Central Farmers’ frustration with the events leading up to the destruction of their inner city garden. In doing so it presents the story of a community in complete despair.

The Garden won a Sterling award for best U.S. feature, the jury praising it for “its tenacity in storytelling in the face of injustice, and the filmmaker’s singular vision in bringing a gripping, dramatic, and important story to the public eye. The Garden has raw emotion, visceral energy, and nail-biting twists and turns. It unravels a complex and layered tale of the destruction of America’s largest urban farm that must not be forgotten.”

Documentary film can promote a broader awareness of issues of pressing importance, including current world events, political and social reform, climate change and human rights. Kennedy is impressive as he reveals the predominately Hispanic farmers and their opponents as individuals passionate about their particular cause. He shows no bias for a political or social agenda but rather tells a story he feels is important without the pretentious claim of social service or mystical claims to a unique access to truth.

The South Central Farmers, committed to strengthening community and culture, recognize the power of protest. The garden was a source of pride and sustenance for their community for more than a decade. The opponents of the garden, particularly Councilwomen Jan Perry of the LA City Ninth District and Juanita Tate, a community activist and head of the Concerned Citizens of South Central, stimulate action and vociferously express their own opinions, as the fate of the garden remains uncertain.

The film opens with live news footage of April 29, 1992, documenting the devastating LA riots which followed the Rodney King trial. We are introduced to a struggle between the African American leadership of the past and the emerging Latino constituents who are experiencing a dramatic social transition. Kennedy focuses on race relations and reports on a possible brown vs. black dynamic as both major challengers are African American. Is Kennedy accurate in suggesting that the two powerful African American leaders are corrupt? Does he think about the implications of raising such a controversial issue? If so, should he care about such implications if his intention is to demonstrate the truth or reality of the situation.

As a hypothetical member of a film jury I was most impressed by the director’s exploration of the truth. Kennedy clearly illustrates the importance of the garden to the farmers and their disillusionment when the terms of the land grant are amended and then abruptly taken away. I was slightly irritated by Kennedy’s failure to clarify the specifics of the original land grant that gave the garden to the citizens of Los Angeles. Clearly the dominant interest is that of the developers which runs contrary to that of the citizens. This juxtaposition of the interests of the community with those of their adversaries results in there being no clear winners or losers.


Anonymous said...

nice review in the washington post


kanishk said...

lovely blog

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