Taming the Garden

Reviewed by Stephen Pye

Few documentaries could capture greed and the excessive so beautifully, so viscerally, and so alarmingly as director Salome Jashi's 'Taming the Garden'. Over the past several decades, billionaire and former authoritarian prime minister, and still hugely influential 'retired' politician Bidzine Ivanishvilli, has been buying large and ancient trees from across the Georgian countryside (often for very small sums) uprooting them, sending them down to the Black Sea, and floating them to his dendrological estate. 'Taming the Garden' captures the journeys of some of these giants, and the communities which are torn apart in their wakes.

It's impossible to succinctly describe the monumental tragedy this documentary bears witness to. Unlike so many films of environmental crisis, where the atrocities committed against the planet are obscure, the humans involved behind corporate veils, or where they attempt to pin our undoing as a planet upon the human collective instead of any individual contributors, Taming the Garden is about exactly one man’s hubris and cupidity and the direct impact it unleashed on countless of his countrymen. There are moments of beauty and grandeur, feats of incredible engineering and mixed emotions. Still, ultimately, the great success of this film begins with the fact that its focus is so narrow, despite how grandiose it truly is. 

The film is painful to watch, though. The range of emotions the local people exhibit is enormous. There's bluster, with some following the claims that the money paid for the trees will support their family for a while, or that the roads being built to transport the trees will help their villages in the long run. There's an air of being downtrodden to so many of the defenders, like they are so consigned whatever their fate may be that they don't care what happens and supporting the tree removal is just the path of least resistance. And there are some people who are against the project from the beginning, abhorring the violence of this insane venture from the outset. These are poor people with few worldly goods and seem to have no real effective means of protesting the damage to their local environment.

Taming the Garden is harrowing and haunting. Its beauty as a film only makes this deeply sad, horrendously selfish story of utter destruction that much more upsetting. There is possibly no better way of depicting one man's perfidious venture than how Salomé Jashi manages to, without comment or analysis, and yet presenting the moral quandary with no easy answers, but an obvious conclusion.