Premiering in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden is a multi-prism meditation that begins with the simplest (if strangest) of premises and slowly, nearly imperceptibly, expands to become a cautionary tale for all.
Through a series of painterly images, the award-winning director, who was born in Tbilisi and whose 2016 doc The Dazzling Light of Sunset nabbed the Main Prize at Visions du Réel’s Regard Neuf Competition, takes us on a fairytale-like journey to the Georgian coast. It’s a magical locale where century-old trees, some the size of small skyscrapers, have stood watch over generations of villagers. But the trees are slowly disappearing – or, more accurately, migrating, being uprooted by force (not unlike the perpetually unstable country’s own citizens). This disturbing disruption isn’t due to climate change or as the result of any existential threat – unless you consider a single wealthy man with a destructively bizarre hobby an omen of things to come.
Through a series of painterly images, the award-winning director…takes us on a fairytale-like journey to the Georgian coast.
While the impoverished villagers have always viewed the green giants as an integral part of their community, this never-named outsider – who also happens to be the most politically powerful man in the country, hence folks are reluctant to refer to him directly – sees them as trophies. Traveling to the far-off coast he collects tree after tree, transplanting them one at a time to his luxurious private garden. It’s a herculean process that involves a slew of often exhausted and exasperated workers, and a long trip across a tranquil but moat reminiscent sea. In addition to their pittance, the villagers are bequeathed massive collateral damage, (literally) earth-shattering destruction left in the stranger’s wake. The gaping holes where the stoic wood once stood, as well as torn-up roads and the felling of less prized, inconveniently in the way trees – all a visual testament to the exploitation of man and the commoditizing of the natural world.
Substituting breathtaking composition for any narration, Jashi captures the fluid movement of branches, the «dancing» of the trees – even the sailing away of one towering plant from a rooted one’s POV. This subtly serves to visually remind us that these collector’s items are in fact animate beings (conversely, the replanted trees we see in the operatic finale exhibit a taxidermy beauty, stand museum-style still).
Moved to tears
Like other recent nature docs – James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher or Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda – Taming the Garden eschews anthropomorphizing for the much deeper cinematic statement that these nonhuman creatures are all individuals deserving of respect in their own right – though the film also echoes the universal plight of nonsentient entities – the destruction of mountains in Appalachia or on Navajo territory in the US similarly forces impoverished communities into a Faustian bargain. Money to feed families comes at the cost of the desecration of the land to which they’re sacredly wed). There’s a reason that several of the rural Georgians are moved to tears with the whisking away of their trees. These living spirits possess ancestral memory within their rings, are the collective caretakers of humanity itself. A sentiment we’d all be wise not to doom ourselves to forget.