One of the curveballs in the Oscar nominations this year was “The Garden,” a little-known nominee in the best documentary feature category. Now that the film has emerged for some regular theatrical engagements, it’s easy to see what appealed to the voters.
“The Garden” has the David-and-Goliath set-up of many documentaries, nurtured by the patience of filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy. When he began shooting footage in 2004, Kennedy could not have foreseen how his story would turn out.
The title refers to an unlikely plot of green farmland in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. The tale of how it came to be there is complicated, but it basically has to do with a kind of defaulted parcel of land that the city took over and loaned to the South Central citizens — in part to mollify community unrest in the wake of the Rodney King riots.
What happened was that dozens of residents, mostly Latino, created individual adjoining gardens to raise crops, like a giant P-patch. According to the movie, the project brought fresh produce to hundreds of people and instilled a strong sense of community pride.
Needless to say, it couldn’t last. In what the movie strongly suggests was a sweetheart deal, the city sold the land back at a shockingly low price to the original owner. He wants to build warehouses on the site, so the people are given notice and the bulldozers are gassed up.
In the years it takes to sort this all out, many legal options are explored, and many suspicious elements uncovered. The saga has a novelistic density to it.
Indeed, this 21-century story feels connected to the kinds of early-20th-century corruption detailed in “Chinatown,” which used fiction to reveal a deeply poisoned civic system in Los Angeles. The faces have changed, but the wheels still turn in the same crooked way.
Not only do the big corporate fatcats come off looking dishonest in “The Garden,” but so do former community organizers who appear to be exploiting their political power. As the fight goes on, the celebrities arrive — people like Daryl Hannah and Willie Nelson, and one 2008 presidential candidate. And yet bad publicity doesn’t faze the greedy one bit.
Although the story is rounded off, this is one of the documentaries that still leaves you wanting to know what happened next. Maybe the next installment can be a happier affair.