The terrible toll of a billionaire’s love for trees: Reviewing Salome Jashi’s film “Taming the Garden”3 min read
If there is one thing Georgian billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is known for, it’s his love of trees. Since 2016, hundreds of trees in Georgia have been uprooted and taken to a vast dendrological park located near Ivanishvili’s coastal estate. In her latest film Taming the Garden, documentary filmmaker Salomé Jashi examines this phenomenon, reflecting on the scars it leaves both environmentally and emotionally.
Taming the Garden originally premiered in 2021 at the Sundance film festival, and it has since seen great acclaim throughout the European festival circuit. In Georgia, however, the film has seen a much quieter release. In 2022, the Georgian Film Academy cancelled screenings of the documentary, claiming the film was “a work that causes controversy and divides society for political reasons.” Yet, Ivanishvili himself never appears in the film, a deliberate choice by Jashi: “He is a mysterious, godlike figure in the film. You never see him, but you know he is controlling everything.”
In the film’s opening shot, a giant tree floats on a barge along Georgia’s Black Sea Coast, an image surreal both to the local fisherman watching on-screen and the audience. In a further, dreamlike sequence, a sea of fog creeps through a forest, smoky tendrils caressing the green leaves. From the very start, Jashi shows off her cinematographic abilities, playing with light and shadow to enhance the inherent eeriness of these moving trees.
“I wanted to explore what was behind this mesmerizingly strange image; to tell about the ambition of a powerful man, who alters landscapes, moves trees, leaves witnesses perplexed – all for the sake of his pleasure,” Jashi says.
For Jashi, this meant examining not only the environmental scars — huge swathes of land left as empty ditches — but also the emotional ones.
Throughout the film, Jashi explores what the removal of these trees means for the people involved, showing an array of responses. For some, Ivanishvili’s promises of infrastructure are worth it: “The man is making quality roads for us. All in return for taking trees from the woods! No matter how much of a villain he is, at least he’s doing something!”
For others, it is more traumatic. These were the trees that generations grew up under, trees that were the beauty of their district. And, as the film shows, to transport Ivanishvili’s trees often means disturbing trees all along the proposed route of travel. As one resident notes: “Why do these trees have to suffer? Just so Ivanishvili can have his tree!” In a moving scene, Jashi captures an entire village coming out to see their tree slowly being driven away. Children film the event on their phones, while grandmothers wipe away their tears.
Though she was able to represent a full spectrum of emotions in the film, Jashi noted that it was indeed difficult to connect with the local inhabitants due to Ivanishvili’s status as the most politically powerful man in the country: “[The locals] were often scared to even appear in front of the camera fearing possible consequences, the fear which we, like other fragile democracies, have in our blood.” While Ivanishvili keeps a private life — his gigantic steel-and-glass mansion overlooking Tbilisi withstanding — he has cemented himself as the puppet master behind the current government. Having founded the ruling Georgian Dream party, and previously serving as Prime Minister between October 2012 and November 2013, he still holds a powerful sway over the nation, as the cancelled film screenings by the Film Academy show. This makes what Jashi captured seem even more poignant, given that it is likely the true strength of the local sentiment went unshown on-screen.
Taming the Garden is a quiet film, emphasising the nature it seeks to represent. And while slow-going, the gorgeous cinematography is captivating.
Jashi ends her film with a series of shots from the Shekvetili Dendrological Park, the home of Ivanishvili’s collection. Gardners wander the perfectly manicured lawns along with pink flamingos, yet again bringing a sense of surrealness into the film, and emphasising how different a world Ivanishvili lives in, compared to the rest of Georgians.