Monday 31 January 2022

Tree of strife: "Taming the Garden"

We often speak about politicos "redrawing the map", but it's largely figurative, a matter of electoral demographics or the kind of gerrymandering our leaders revert to when they've no better ideas for sustaining power. In Salomé
 Jashi's documentary Taming the Garden, the process is literal. Over ninety minutes, Jashi invotes us to observe a labour-intensive excavation project unfolding deep in the Georgian countryside. Diggers are manoeuvred into place. Trucks rattle down backroads. The assembled workmen can be heard joshing and griping about their bad backs and the whims of their employer. Gradually, a small part of the local forestry is carved up, and we're left to consider the fate of a massive, century-old oak tree, isolated from the others over the course of several months and eventually plucked from the ground to be shipped off elsewhere. The reason for this displacement is revealed so late into the film that the following arguably counts as a spoiler: the tree is one of several to have been excavated at the behest of the former Georgian PM Bidzina Ivanishvili and reinstalled within the vast country estate that currently serves as his own personal Versailles.

Whatever we make of this headscrambling high command, it's given rise to a film of extraordinary landscape photography, one of those documentaries where the images really do tell the story. Jashi and her cinematographer Goga Devdariani shoot in handsome wide frames that stand back and marvel as the tree is chiselled from the ground, erased from the skyline and floated from one part of Georgia to another. Every set-up establishes its own battle between the laws of nature and the will of man; somewhere in the background of this story is the arrogant assumption that a tree chopped out here and repotted elsewhere will take root and continue to grow at the same rate as before - the kind of blithely unscientific can-doism that has blighted the political landscape over the past decade. Within this setting, Jashi hones in on resonant, suggestive imagery: maybe my mind has been rotted by filth of one stripe or another, but I can't now watch a drill bit being eased into the soil without thinking of the way certain leaders aggressively insert themselves into society's very fabric. Conversations with those at the scene only underline the extent to which cranks and despots can get inside your head. The landowner, whose grandparents first planted this tree, is capable of resistance when in his cups; whether that resistance will survive the night and take wider root is open to question. British viewers may experience a dry gulp of recognition upon hearing the rhetoric one workman uses to defend Ivanishvili's diktats: "No matter how much of a villain he is, at least he's doing something. It would be ungrateful not to see that." Among the many jawdropping things Taming the Garden illustrates: the lengths to which some are prepared to go just to doff a cap.

Some of it is what you'd witness at any construction site in the middle of the night: eerie-to-murky, slowgoing-to-dull, the business of underpaid people standing around getting cold and tired. What's staggering about even these scenes is the level of work being undertaken so as to improve one moneyed man's life: at the extraction site, yes, but also on the shoreline where the oak is floated, on the shoreline where it's received, and on the roads connecting all these sites. Even those scenes that don't feature the rumble of chainsaws and JCBs run on the disconcerting hum of a generator; heaven knows how the locals got any sleep, even before the revelation the entire project was taxpayer-funded. (Suck it, proles.) What keeps the film on course is the clarity of its narrative line, which is that of a warped but instructive fable. There would have been other ways of telling this story: Jashi could simply have asked Ivanishvili for a guided tour (providing he didn't smell a rat), or she could have documented this project in its entirety, from blueprints to grand opening. Instead her approach is synecdochal: she films the enormous expense of time, money and energy involved in getting this one tree from A to B across the sea, recognising that in itself will stand for deviation, perversion or corruption enough. In the closing moments, we see the oak reaching its final resting place in the grounds of this latter-day Bluebeard's castle, where the trees are exhibited like trophies and the abundant tranquillity can't entirely drown out the noise of the disruption required to get them there. If you're anything like this viewer, you may hope the damn thing withered in place the minute Jashi called cut, and that it attracted foxes who kept Ivanishvili up all night with vociferous rutting.

Taming the Garden is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Dogwoof on Demand, Curzon Home Cinema, Prime Video and the BFI Player. 

No comments:

Post a Comment