There’s a certain level of commonality within any nature documentary. Themes about the environment and sustainability is a universally known topic, and regardless of the location or specific subject of choice, there will always be something unique in the general tone and presentation of these sorts of films. In some ways, it’s the very reason why David Attenborough is still wealthily employed and continuing what he does best. But what if the nature documentary sub-genre was subverted? What if a filmmaker infused arthouse and European film tropes into one of these forms of documentary, to provide further insight on the miscellaneous subject matter at hand? In a similar vein to Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, the presentation within the Georgian-produced documentary Taming the Garden is an alluring cinematic experience. 

Formed out of various visually stunning and static shots of Georgia’s earth, wind, and sea —  director Salomé Jashi’s paints a portrait of capitalist greed, through the perspective of a group of construction workers who are set to uproot and transport a century-old tree. Commissioned by an infamous out-of-office Georgian prime-minister, the challenges that are featured and documented within Taming the Garden result in a film gripped and immersed by an impressive amount of sensual atmosphere. As the workers continuously face challenges while transporting the tree, and as the village becomes more unhinged and unrested by the news of the grueling transportation process, the more rigorous the film becomes in its bare-bone material. 

One could even argue that the film is incredibly tedious in presentation, where the material simply doesn’t warrant a feature film treatment. Where needless conversations linger extensively for no discernible reason outside for the sake of additional background coverage — the only truly resonant aspect of Taming the Garden is the breathtaking composition of each meticulous shot. The point is already made directly clear within the opening minutes, and neither Jashi or any of the subjects provide any further insight on the deforestation dynamic at play. For a topic so grounded in the social-political state of modern-day corruption, there’s a lack of punch and even impact when the film eventually reaches the location of the infamous Shekvetili Dendrological Park. 

Consumed by classical chants, images of activating sprinklers, and sounds of chirps and hoots infiltrating the frame, the ultimate payoff of Taming the Garden’s finale is unfortunately flat. To reiterate, the journey to reach this very brink of corporate insanity is sacrificed in favour for an abundance of unneeded material. In a film that could have easily been more effective and memorable if it was cut down to a short-form project, Taming the Garden is further proof that even with a clever set-up of stylistic subversion focus and intent should ultimately be the most important and relevant strength in any documentary feature.

Dir: Salomé Jashi

Scr: Salomé Jashi

DOP: Goga Devdariani & Salomé Jashi

Country: Switzerland/Germany/Georgia

Year: 2021

Runtime: 91 minutes

Taming the Garden premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition. The film will screen again virtually on February 2nd. Taming the Garden is also seeking International Distribution.

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David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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