Director: Salomé Jashi
In a week in which the deliberate felling of a 300-year-old tree at Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall produced outpourings of grief, Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden, about the uprooting of thousands of Georgia’s ancient trees is particularly resonant. Jashi’s documentary, shown as part of the 2023 London Georgian Black Sea Film Festival, is both beautiful and quietly devastating. In 2016 one man, former Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, set about creating a collection of rare species of his country’s trees in his huge garden. You might think this a worthy project until, that is, you realise that he is not planting saplings to ensure the creation of a new landscape for future generations. What Ivanishvili wants is a mature garden now. He’s been buying up quantities of Georgia’s trees, then having them uprooted and laboriously brought to him. It’s a vanity project on a massive scale, causing untold environmental damage and scarring the lives of local people whose trees are taken.
The skill of Jashi’s film is her non-intrusive approach to documentary making. There is no voice over, no commentary about what we are shown. We simply watch one scenario after another as small groups of local workmen set about the months-long task of digging out a fully grown tree, binding its roots, then overseeing its transport, first by road, then by sea. Cinematographer Goga Devdariani favours evocative long shots, only occasionally going in close to watch the strange process whereby drills are inserted into pipes and driven into the roots.
We hear snatches of conversation between the men, sometimes with the voices of family members. A woman of 90 remembers having planted that walnut tree that is now being callously dug up. Most, however, are cheerfully stoical, accepting there’s nothing they can do. “That man must really like trees,” one comments, while another asks, “What will he go for when he’s got all the trees? Birds?”
And it is bird song plus the sound of lapping waves that at first create the timeless beauty of the shore. But this sound world, created by Philippe Ciompi, is abruptly drowned out by the roar of machinery, as diggers and chain saws are set to work. Celia Stroom’s original music gives a melancholy undertow to this meditative film.
Devdariani captures surreal sequences in which a massive tree is seen being carried in stately procession down a simple road, followed by a stream of local villagers. We see these ancient trees accidentally doing battle with other trees by the roadside, ripping their branches while its own, in turn, are broken off.
Most evocative of all, in a scene that appears as the film’s trailer, the camera stands still, recording the bizarre but dignified tree on its articifial island being towed out to sea on its long journey to Ivanishvili’s garden.
There are echoes of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo in the sheer absurdity of the task. But we have always manipulated the landscape to suit our tastes. Jane Austen lamented the felling of an avenue of trees in the interests of eighteenth-century garden design. But nothing has ever been done on a scale such as Georgia’s.
In late 2022, there are reports of Ivanishvili setting his sights on Kenya’s baobab trees.
If Taming the Garden is at times longer than one might wish, it is nonetheless an important and compelling film.
Taming the Garden is screening as part of the London Georgian Film Festival 2023.