Movie Review: Philip Kennicott on the Oscar-Nominated Documentary 'The Garden'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

The great English philosopher John Locke makes no appearance in "The Garden," the Academy Award-nominated documentary by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. But Locke haunts every twist and turn in this David-and-Goliath tale about the fight to save a 14-acre community garden in one of the grittiest parts of South Los Angeles.

The battle over the South Central Farm made headlines from 2003 to 2006, when bulldozers razed what seemed to its mostly Hispanic cultivators a little bit of paradise, a place to meet and socialize, sit in the shade of fruit trees, and grow something to supplement their meager incomes. The controversy attracted celebrity interlopers -- at one point, Daryl Hannah had to be removed from a walnut tree -- and it became ground zero for just about every incendiary flash point in Los Angeles urban politics. It divided people on lines of race and class and even religion, when the property's owner, Ralph Horowitz, said he was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse.

It was fought in the courts and in the media, but in the end, it was an old-fashioned property dispute. Horowitz, from whom the land was seized by eminent domain in 1982, had quietly bought the land back from the city after its intended use -- as the site of a trash incinerator -- was successfully resisted by neighborhood activists. After the Rodney King riots, in 1992, the gardeners had been allowed by the city to use the land, but now Horowitz owned it again, and wanted to develop it.

Within minutes of the opening of the film, your sympathies are torn, and not necessarily in ways that Kennedy intends. Yes, the gardeners have made something rare and lovely in the urban wasteland. But it's not their land. This is where Locke comes in.

In his 1690 Second Treatise on Government, Locke explains the origins of property: Whatever a man "has mixed his labor with and joined it to something that is his own," Locke wrote, becomes his property.

That was a good way to explain the origins of property in some hypothetical state of nature, in which land is abundant. But, as Locke would readily acknowledge, not a very good theory of property when land is scarce and ferociously contested.

As Kennedy's plot thickens (and he does a good job of building and sustaining tension), it becomes clear that Horowitz's title to the land is more complicated than it at first appears. And that the gardeners are also in contest with other neighborhood interests, including a neighborhood activist who wants to use the land for a soccer field -- and perhaps enrich her family in the process.

The powerful appeal of mixing one's labor with the land raises matters deeply meaningful to the gardeners, whose efforts over more than a decade make their garden seem more fully and inalienably theirs than any deed can secure. It is the source of all of our sympathy with their cause as well, as the camera focuses on the truly extraordinary transformation that water and shovels and sweat can effect.

But in Horowitz's view, the gardeners are squatters and the land is his. It's not an easy position to sympathize with except on the macroscopic level: Without clear rights of possession, no society can hope to develop economically. And in purely utilitarian terms -- the greatest good for the greatest number -- it's by no means clear that serving the interests of a few hundred gardeners trumps all other community needs, including job creation and even the blessings of a soccer field.

Locke has something more to say on this, however. Mixing your labor with the earth didn't give an absolute right of possession. Anything that you couldn't make use of, anything that was wasted or withered on the vine, might revert to common possession.

And so, at the end of the film, when we see the once-verdant garden site now enclosed by fences, barren and useless, undeveloped by Horowitz and untilled by the gardeners, a deeper, ethical chord is struck. This process has benefited no one, and Horowitz, who clearly resented being made into a villain during the very public battle, seems all the more a villain, despite his reasonable legal claims.

It is at this point that Kennedy's film begins to make one uncomfortable. A good documentary leaves the viewer wanting more. A problematic one leaves the viewer needing more. And we definitely need to know more about Horowitz, about why, in the end, he hates the gardeners so much he would rather see the land lie fallow than let them buy it at a reasonable price.

It's easy to love a garden, not so easy to love a developer. Kennedy's nuanced film would be all the more nuanced if Horowitz's claims were better represented.

The emphasis on property rights vs. the romantic appeal of an urban garden might also have been opened up, philosophically, to embrace a wider discussion. Community gardens are a boon to anyone lucky enough to get a plot. But often they serve a relatively small and entrenched clientele.

It is the scarcity of land available for green uses in most cities that makes Locke's ideal of ownership -- the humble tending and improvement of the land -- powerful but unworkable in cases such as the South Central Farm. And that points to a critical issue that Kennedy's film, which focuses on the internal drama of city politics, raises only in passing: The desperate need for better, greener, more equitable urban planning.

The Garden (80 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated and contains brief strong language.

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