Did you know there is 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles? Well, there’s not any more — now it’s a bulldozed, unused patch of land.
But from 1994 to 2006, the South Central Farm was a thriving, verdant paradise to the predominantly Mexican and Latino residents who tended to it. Then the property’s long-absent owner, Ralph Horowitz, decided he once again wanted control of the land, minus the crops.
The battle that ensued got ugly, involving backhanded political deals, name-calling, and, of course, greed — and Scott Hamilton Kennedy was there to document it all in The Garden, which opens today.
Below, the director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary talks about the making of the film, the politics involved, and what’s next on his plate.
1. How did this project come about?
It was through my good friend and co-producer, Dominque Derrenger, who saw a PBS piece on the show Life and Times about the garden. We had been looking to do a project together, and he said, “I think we’ve found something here,” and he was absolutely right.
It had so many elements of a great story: the largest community garden in the country, born as a form of healing after the [Rodney King] riots, a huge success, and after 12 years there is a mysterious threat of eviction, and best of all the farmers aren’t leaving until they get some answers.
He sent me a transcript, and even with that it had the makings of a great American story. I was on a plane and got off in LA, and went right to the garden, and we started shooting the next day. So I guess you could say that there was no preproduction on this film.
2. Were any of the farmers or politicians against the idea of a film?
No, not really. Even [California Councilwoman] Jan Perry and [community activist] Juanita Tate spoke to me in the beginning. [Note: Councilwoman Perry and Ms. Tate are among those who wanted to redevelop the farm.] No one ever asked me to stop shooting or anything like that.
3. How much footage did you shoot?
Almost 300 hours of verite, and over three hundred when you include archival, news, etc.
4. The politics of the fight get pretty tangled and inside-baseball, as our president would say. Was this a learning experience for you? Was it hard to edit the film to make these details as clear as possible to a Joe the Plumber audience? (Well, maybe a little more sophisticated.)
Of course, as a storyteller, you want great characters who have to deal with great twists and turns, but the question becomes: Do you have the time, money, and sheer energy to capture all of this? And on top of that, even if you do capture it, and we captured a ton, now you have to face it in the editing room. What is good, what is bad, what must be in the film? How do you structure it in such a way that is truthful, clear, and – God forbid – entertaining? It’s hard, but very satisfying if you can figure it all out.
I have said that this film has swallowed me up and spit me out so many times. Every time I tried to wrestle it to the ground, it just shrugged me off. But please don’t think I am asking for pity. Documentaries are just plain hard to make, but in terms for documentary karma and serendipity, I have been very lucky. The wonderful people in The Garden, and the situations they struggled with gave me plenty of story; it was my job to not mess it up.
5. Do you believe your film is objective, or did you intend for the farmers to come as the clear good guys?
Let me start by saying the film tells and captures the truth, in the best way that I could. There are people who say I am clearly on the side of the farmers, and that is fine. That was a conscious choice that I was going to tell the story from their point of view: how they created the farm, how they found out there was a mysterious eviction threat, how they found some answers, found a lawyer, on and on.
At the same time I tried to talk to as many people on the “other side of the story” as possible. Jan Perry and Juanita Tate spoke to me, but [L.A. Mayor Antonio] Villaraigosa and Mr. Horowitz dodged me.
6. An admittedly similar question: My jaw dropped at some of the comments made by Jan Perry, particularly when she said she “doesn’t want to empower [the farmers]” because they’ll never be supporters of hers. I suppose on one hand she gets points for being truthful, but considering all the alleged backdoor deals she was involved with, it seemed an odd thing to be frank about. Did you try to remain farm or sometimes call them on their bullshit?
I tried to ask questions that got past the b.s., and sometimes people really dig in on their talking points. But if you keep talking, and maybe ask the question again, later, in another way you often get a glimpse of what is really underneath their “presentation.”
7. You obviously began the project without knowing how the case would turn out. Were you surprised at the outcome?
Yes, I was as shocked as the farmers lawyers when Horowitz won his appeal to overturn the injunction. I thought the third act of the film might be a courtroom drama where we see the city council on the stand, and get some real answers.
8. Despite triumphant developments and yes-we-can moments, there seemed to be a fair share of ugliness between the parties involved, and even in-fighting among the farmers. Was this difficult to be around?
I can’t say that I was surprised by the fact that people in a position of power were trying to take advantage of people who had much less power, that has been going on forever, and I thought that this was going to continue that story with it being more about class (power/money) than race.
But as the story developed, and especially in the editing process, when I really started to look at how people treated each other it made me think about just how hard it is for any of us to treat each other fairly without getting derailed by things like: greed, self-interest, race, class, ego, and on and on.
9. Near the end of the film you show Juanita Tate saying, “God’s been good to me. If you don’t give it back, he will kick your ass.” Then you immediately follow that with subtitles saying that she died from a stroke in 2004. Did you intend this as a not-so-subtle comment that God did, indeed, definitively kick her ass for being on the wrong side of the issue?
No, I just found it ironic. And it is a tough moment, but I do believe it captures Ms. Tate’s energy and approach to life.
10. How does the process of making a doc compare to a feature?
Wow, you could write a novel on that. The biggest difference is in a documentary, from day one, there is no script. But you are hoping for some of the same results that you want from a script: character, conflict, surprise, change, etc.
So you have to look for those and try to put yourself in a position to capture those things. You [have to] have this combination of: a nose for story, hard work, luck, and serendipity.
11. Hey, you got nominated for an Oscar. No real question here, but congrats.
Thank you, it was quite an honor, and a lot of fun.
12. One of your next projects is a reality series about the L.A. County High School for the Arts. Should we expect trash talking and catfights?
Sure it might have a couple of those moments, but at its core I hope it is another story about people wrestling with this thing called life.