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VIllagers gather around the kitchen tables, bicker over the fate of huge trees, some of which have stood for centuries in front of their houses. What does a tree matter if its removal means roads will be improved, argues a man, while an old woman mumbles ominously about recovery in the next life.

Outside, majestic oaks and lime trees quiver as bulldozers dig trenches around their roots and industrial pipes are driven under their gnarled, mossy trunks. The goal is not to destroy them but to move them to a new home: a lush, arboreal Shangri-La who is summoned by one of the richest and most powerful men in Georgia.

These little backyard dramas, played out in the Georgian countryside over a two-year period, are the subject of Taming the Garden. This is the second feature film by TV journalist-turned-documentary filmmaker Salomé Jashi, who was inspired to do so after seeing news footage of a tree floating quietly along the Black Sea coast. on a boat.

Root of the problem: the brutal creation of a billionaire’s pleasure garden |  Movies
Taming the Garden by director Salomé Jashi. Photography: Sergi Barisashvili

“The sensations that this image triggered in me were something I could never have imagined before,” she says. “My first thought was that it was a totally stunning image, it was real life poetry. But then it was like I saw something that I should never have seen, that should never have happened. It was like some kind of mistake; a digital problem in reality that was not meant to exist. She recreated that sensation in a 90-minute documentary that has won awards since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and opens in the UK this month.

On the surface, Taming the Garden is a faithful recording of the difficult negotiations and brutal mechanics of cutting down trees. A family is delighted to sell their tree. They are in debt and have been trying to kill him for years because he blocks the sun of their tangerine orchard. Others are left in grief, with gardens dug like bomb sites. Everyone is unaware that the chosen specimen may not be the only tree to suffer; it will be the same for trees of less importance which will have the misfortune of hindering its transport, sometimes with two trucks side by side, along roads which must be specially widened for each trip.

From this shattering progress emerges a deeply moving meditation on the power, the vulnerability of nature and the primordial impulse of men to bend the environment to their will. It’s like Oscar Wilde’s selfish giant is raging in the background, although we never see him. The selfish giant of this story is billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who emerged from obscurity to found a new party and become prime minister of Georgia in 2012 (he voluntarily stepped down a year later). More than 200 trees have been uprooted from the Georgian countryside to make it its pleasure garden.

Getting villagers – and laborers – to appear on camera was the biggest challenge for Jashi, who had to drop several storylines after people had doubts about their participation in the film. It was impossible to plan ahead, as the shoot depended entirely on information from workers who often did not know how long it would take to complete a job or where they were going next. “Three months, six months, who knows? they shrug their shoulders, huddled around a campfire at the end of a long day.

Georgia has strict tree protection laws, Jashi points out, which made the project all the more controversial, while also posing the problem to local people of disposing of discarded branches because they lacked the necessary resources. papers for sale to sawmills. On one occasion, a beloved lime tree, with the names of generations of farmers engraved into its trunk, was accidentally destroyed while being moved. “It was a huge tragedy,” says the director. “We were sitting in this woman’s kitchen as she told me the story. She was crying, and I was crying too, because the tree was really like a human being to her.

Although trees become the main protagonists of this slowly unfolding drama, there is also a strange heroism in the machinery opposed to them: Bulldozers stubbornly dig around them with crab tongs, and behemoths carry them away. , without blinking, through the night. As a child who grew up in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, Jashi loved to watch excavators at work. “They reminded me a lot of human gestures in one way or another. And when we were shooting, I found it very appealing how this brutal, heavy machinery also made very tender movements. “

Root of the problem: the brutal creation of a billionaire’s pleasure garden |  Movies
Final cut… A scene from Taming the Garden by Salomé Jashi.

Jashi came to filmmaking late in life, having been argued as a daughter by her engineer father and her mother who was an English teacher. “It was in the 90s during the post-Soviet crisis. We had no food, no electricity and no money, of course. And they said, “No, you’re not going to make a living in the movies, plus you’re a woman.” You should study journalism. It is the profession of the future. So I kind of conformed to that. But news formats frustrated her and she started making short films, eventually winning a scholarship from the British Council to study for a Masters at Royal Holloway, University of London, under the supervision of documentary filmmaker Gideon Koppel. “The kind of movie I’m making now is largely thanks to him,” she said. “I didn’t even know they existed before.”

Taming the Garden is far from a balanced two-minute report; it sits at the junction of documentary and myth, without even mentioning that the Ivanishvili garden is now open to the public. Although many trees were involved in the filming, their stories are represented by a symbolic journey. Villagers gather with their bikes to see the tree on its way. A man lights his first cigarette in 30 years. An elderly woman cries and crosses herself convulsively, while her young parents enthusiastically record the withdrawal on their phones.

As the tree sails along the coast – in a revival of the image that inspired the film – two bulldozers await him on a stone mole, their digging arms lowered like heads bowed during a burial. And in a rich man’s well-tended garden, around the half-buried roots of hundred-year-old trees held straight by guy ropes, the sprinklers go off.

Taming the garden is in the cinemas of 28 january.

theguardian Gt

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