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‘The Garden’ produces hope and sadness

Documentary reveals complicated truths about community, identity and self-worth, as well as greed, deception and racism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“The Garden” focuses on one of the most fundamental functions of human existence: the process of working the earth to grow healthy fruits and vegetables.

But it also digs deeper to reveal more complicated truths about community, identity and self-worth, as well as greed, deception and racism.

Director-producer Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s film, which was nominated for an Oscar this year for best documentary feature (“Man on Wire” ended up winning), follows three years in the life of a 14-acre garden in South Central Los Angeles, the same neighborhood that was burned and eviscerated during the 1992 Rodney King riots.

From that scorched earth sprang this urban community garden — the largest of its kind in the United States. It was created to help pacify and rejuvenate the area, but it did more than that. By providing a place for regular people to grow their own corn, papayas, bananas — you name it — the garden gave not just food but hope and life.

“They taste so good because you know you took care of them,” one woman says of her zucchini. “You made them.”

And it’s the bond the farmers forged by working side by side that strengthens them once they learn they’re going to be shut down and evicted in early 2004. The land owner, Ralph Horowitz, bought the expanse for $5 million and lent it to the farmers, but now wants sell it because he has too many expenses. His asking price: $16.3 million. They have until June 13, 2006, to come up with the money or get out.

(Kennedy never gets Horowitz on camera himself, but includes some deposition footage and a phone interview in which he says the gardeners could raise $100 million and it wouldn’t matter: “I don’t like their cause and I don’t like their conduct.”)

Kennedy tracks the ensuing anxiety among the farmers, working-class folks who get choked up just thinking about having to leave. But that sadness turns to anger, which turns into organized protests and a lawsuit. Many of them believe they’re being targeted because they’re poor and Hispanic; some end up turning on each other out of frustration.

But on the brighter side, the garden becomes a cause celebre, with such celebrities as Daryl Hannah, Willie Nelson and Martin Sheen showing up to lend support. Joan Baez calls Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on her cell phone from the garden, asking him to help; he’d campaigned there as a city councilman running for office, but once he gets elected, he doesn’t show up. A fundraiser concert (featuring former Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha, of course) draws crowds and some cash but not enough.

Ultimately, the dreaded eviction day comes, with TV news helicopters buzzing overhead and extra cops on the ground to prevent the kind of violence that erupts nonetheless. Kennedy’s intimate camerawork puts us at the center of the tension under the merciless glare of the summer sun.

He’s clearly on the side of the little guys here, allowing individual farmers to express themselves eloquently and passionately in English and Spanish while making city leaders and other community activists seem evasive and defensive by comparison. His movie is as scrappy and plucky as the farmers themselves, and just as sweetly imperfect as their handmade products.