Open City Documentary Festival

Dendrological Dislocation: an essay by Galina Stepanova

We invited five writers to reflect on films of their choosing from this year’s festival programme. In this essay, Galina Stepanova examines Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden.

Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden opens with a sequence of carefully framed meditative shots of men fishing somewhere on the Georgian Black Sea coast. A few moments in, a wider frame reveals a tree floating across the water close to the horizon. And as peculiar honking sounds of invisible birds build amidst the lull of the waves, an atmosphere of mystery establishes itself hinting at the enchanted yet dislocated setting which the film is about to immerse us in.

Dislocation in both literal and metaphorical senses is a key thread running through Taming the Garden. Attentively observing the difficulties of engineering with which centennial trees are being uprooted and transported across land and sea from their native villages to a dendrological park under construction, Jashi questions the nature of this endeavour. From conversations among workers and villagers, we learn that the park is being created by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a wealthy former Georgian Prime Minister, who has set out to relocate more than two hundred ancient trees across the country to build his Arcadia. Reactions vary from resignation and anger, to analysing the personal and community benefits of this operation. However, what appears to remain constant is a certain sense of disempowerment and loss that this unyielding project reveals among the people; a social dislocation of sorts that accompanies the dislocation of the trees. Jashi hints at a deeper-rooted collective unease being re-enacted with the removal of the trees.

At the centre of all this is, Ivanishvili, an omniscient figure around whom the film artfully builds suspense without ever confronting him directly as, if it were not him, it could have been somebody else with another totalising anachronistically modernist vision of the world. Instead, Taming the Garden culminates in his Garden of Eden, where beauty and absurdity meet in a sterile vision of nature, evocatively accompanied by the idyllic ironies of Celia Stroom’s music and Philippe Ciompi’s sound design. In this place, trees are held down to the ground by wires and watered by timed sprinklers, whilst the pink flamingos inhabit strictly designated areas. If we are to consider the meaning of Henry David Thoreau’s words that: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” then the impoverishment of this version of a relationship to nature, as it is subtly built up in the film by Salomé Jashi, will seem beyond measure.

Taming the Garden takes its time to construct a world that hints at something larger than what is visible on the screen. It goes much beyond a procedural documentary about the creation of a dendrological park in Georgia, becoming an almost mythical portrait of a contemporary socio-political setting structured by the relationship between man and nature.

After graduating with a degree in History and Modern Languages from the University of Oxford, Galya worked in film production and education in France, Armenia and the Czech Republic. During this period, she spent four years as executive producer at HYPERMARKET Film on international documentary projects such as Peter Kerekes’s Occupation 1968 (2018), Dmitry Bogolyubov’s Town of Glory and Vitaly Mansky’s Putin’s Witnesses and Gorbachev. Heaven.

In 2021, Galya joined the Prague-based Institute of Documentary Film as a selection committee member for the East Silver Market as well as DAFilms to manage online festival programmes. She is currently finishing the second year of her MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation at the National Film and Television School.

Taming the Garden screens on Wednesday 10 September at 18.30, at Curzon Soho. Tickets for the screening are available here.