Film Club Discussion: The Garden

The Garden: Filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s politically charged, Oscar-nominated documentary follows a group of low-income families struggling to protect a 14-acre urban farm in the middle of South Central Los Angeles from bureaucratic real estate developers.

First, I want to thank Vasilly for suggesting this documentary for Film Club. I don’t watch very many documentaries, but I have to wonder at that, as I usually find myself fascinated when I do. The Garden was no exception; it portrayed an event and issue that I was previously unaware of.

This is the perfect kind of movie for Film Club, because my mind is literally spinning with the issues surrounding this film. First of all, I loved the way that it portrayed how a community can come together to create something beautiful. The garden was absolutely gorgeous, and I loved that these poverty-stricken families could grow food for themselves, as well as create something that bound them together as a community. And yet, within that same community, you could see racial tensions, misunderstandings, and other disharmony that weakened their cause.

As a white woman who lives in a rural area that is not very culturally diverse at all, I am the first to admit that I have a hard time responding to films like this. I know how I feel about what I saw, but I feel like I have no right to speak to the racism issue, because it is something I have never experienced in my life. So, I’m simply going to speak from my heart, and hopefully I won’t offend anyone!

There seemed to be much racial tension in the area between the African-American community and the Hispanic community. The fight over whether the community need the garden or a soccer field seemed to be drawn along racial lines. The issue was only complicated by communication difficulties because most of the farmers who created the garden did not speak English. It made me sad, because I think that there was often misunderstanding due to language barriers. At the end of the film, the land developer Ralph Horowitz, who ultimately won his bid to evict the farmers and take the land back, accused the farmers of being anti-Semitic. I wish the film had gone more into why he would say that, although I have my suspicions that it was simply one last excuse to grab the land.

The Garden also dealt with the issue of local politics, something which I fully admit I am ignorant of – especially in a huge urban area like L.A. I found it despicable the way the back door deals over the land were made, that there was no transparency to the community, and the way that one or two people could hold so much power that justice seemed to be neglected. I know that the film’s focus was on the farmers themselves, and their fight, but I did wish that the film-makers had given us more background on the city politics behind the land deal.

There was one other section of the film that I felt was poorly executed, and left me a bit confused, and that was when the leaders of the farmers, Rufina Juarez and Tezozomoc, were evicting some of the farmers from their plots. I am assuming that it had to do with the fact that some of them were selling produce off of their plots, which was prohibited, but I thought that part of the film confusing and left room for ambivalence.

I found the ending of the movie very sad, and was in tears over the footage of bulldozers destroying all those beautiful plants and trees. My anger was only compounded when I did some Googling and discovered that the plot was still sitting unused and empty as of August of 2012. What a waste – especially after the farmers accomplished the simply amazing feat of raising the $16 million asking price, only to have Horowitz refuse to sell to them, no matter what.

I hope that there are a lot of you who found time to watch The Garden! What did you think?

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6 Responses to Film Club Discussion: The Garden

  1. I agree so much. It was so interesting and really just made me feel so many things.

    Like after watching this, I can totally understand why people would feel it is impossible to get anywhere if you are poor. The Garden was the epitome of “teach a man to fish” and also repurposing something ugly for good. The connection they felt to the land, their pride in working it, gah these were GOOD things and the city treated them like crap for feeling that way. I was really proud of them of how hard they fought.

    The fact that it’s still sitting empty fills me with rage because it means that it was really about putting them in their place rather than the land itself. Like that stuff he was saying at the end made me SO ANGRY.

    IA so much about the local politics, that was FASCINATING. It was also interesting to see Mayor Villarog however you spell it because he’s always been mayor since I’ve lived here so it was interesting to see how he supported them at first and then eventually turned away. I don’t know the undercurrent of politics in this documentary was really interesting and incredibly disheartening.

    Like how the court overturned the prelim injuction but wouldn’t let it be published?? WHAT IS THAT? How is that even legal? I felt like there was so much shady stuff going on.

    Interesting thoughts on the community as well. I think basically they had rules they’d voted on and they felt like they had to enforce more strictly when they were fighting to keep the land.

    Anyway realllly interesting documentary, I’m glad we watched it!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Amy – yes, I forgot about the part with the mayor. There seems to have been so much going on behind closed doors, the deals made, etc. – maybe someday someone will actually be able to actually expose the whole thing.

      And, I agree, Horowitz’s comments at the end were just terrible. To think of how many years worth of produce could have come from the garden between then and now, and yet that land is just sitting there, useless – so sad.

      What did you think about the comments on the politics of poverty – in specific to the activist Juanita Tate? On the outside, she would seem to be someone who has the good of the community at heart, but then you look at how her relatives financially benefited from the soccer field deal, and how they ended up being investigated for fraud. It seemed like people knew that there was something shady going on there, but she had so much power that a lot of people were afraid to go against her. It seemed she had started out with the right motives – getting the waste plant project shut down to protect the community – but then things changed. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of how power and authority changes a person. Is it possible for someone to obtain power and yet maintain their integrity?

  2. Vasilly
    Twitter: Vasilly

    Yay! I’m so glad that you guys enjoyed this! It’s such a good documentary and I hope more people will watch it.

    Many urban cities are have spots that are deemed “food deserts”, which are neighborhoods that don’t have easy access to healthy foods such as grocery stores. Instead, residents have easier access to convenience or liquor stores that sell mostly junk food. Here it is that these residents are using this huge plot of land to grow food that will feed themselves, their families, and their neighbors but politics take priority and it becomes more about money, culture, and race then anything else.

    I don’t think it was tension between the African American community and the Latino community, I think Juanita Tate and her son just made it seem that way. Amy’s right, Tate started off doing good in the community but then it became more about money and power. It’s like that saying that power doesn’t corrupt but just shows everyone who you really are. Watching the video, we see exactly who Juanita Tate and her son are and it’s not pretty. This garden was such a beautiful, inspiring thing that could have become an example on how to beautify and teach city residents – especially the poor, how to feed themselves that was destroyed because of some backroom deal. I hope Villarogiasa and the rest of the city council realize how horrible they look by not standing up for these residents and the community.

    I live about 40 minutes away from L.A. and my small city has plenty of empty lots that are being converted into community gardens. None of these lots are anywhere as big as the one that Horowitz own. They’re a plight but no one cared. Now things are changing and it’s because the community is demanding it. But the community in L.A. did too and the city didn’t care.

    Carrie, I found the ending so heartbreaking. I was tearing up over it. Horowitz is an awful person and what he said at the end about “those people” summed up what the whole thing was about for him. I’m just glad that the gardeners were able to find another plot of land even if it’s farther away.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      V – I was happy to hear that they found another plot, too. I was left wondering how someone like Horowitz could sleep at night, could look himself in the mirror, knowing that he had done that to people who are less fortunate than he is. You’re probably right about Juanita Tate and her sons making it look like it was a Hispanic / African-American issue. She truly showed how despicable she was. I think the thing that bothers me the most is that the politicians who allowed the back door deals are still in power – will they ever be held accountable?

      • Vasilly
        Twitter: Vasilly

        Carrie, I really doubt that those politicians will ever be held accountable for their actions with this deal. I don’t understand why they would even sell this land back to the owner in the first place. I also wonder about the possibility of these council members making other back room deals. If it wasn’t for the director taking an interest in this story, we wouldn’t have known about it. What are the other deals that we don’t know about?

        • CarrieK
          Twitter: booksandmovies

          V – I’m sure there are many deals like that. The injustice of it drives me mad.