The Garden


The Garden

An urban oasis.

(2008) Documentary (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rufina Juarez, Tezozomoc, Josefina Medina, Eddie Luvianos Rumbos, Deacon Alexander, Miguel Perez, Jan Perry, Juanita Tate, Doris Bloch, Dan Stormer, Ralph Horowitz, Danny Glover, Darryl Hannah, Antonio Villaraigosa, Joan Baez, Dennis Kucinich. Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy

 

The land is the important thing. It is what nurtures us, gives us sustenance. There are those who identify with the land as surely as they identify with their selves. It is more to them than a plot of dirt, or a bit of grass. It is everything.

After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a 14 acre plot of land in South Central Los Angeles that was intended for use as a trash incinerator until neighborhood activists put a stop to it was given by the city for use as an urban garden. It would be the largest of its kind in the United States.

The garden at East 41st and South Alameda was primarily tended to by primarily Hispanic farmers, many of whom had been farmers or were descended from farmers in Mexico. They grew vegetables and fruits almost all native to the region that encompasses Mexico and the Southwestern United States known as the Mega-Mexico Vavilov Center (sounds like a discount store doesn’t it) some of which are considered weeds (like dwarf nettle and seepweed) but were used for herbal and medicinal uses by the farmers, while others were vegetables and fruits not commonly available at supermarkets.

The farmers used these vegetables and fruits to supplement the diet of their families; the excess they would sell to other families in order to buy new seeds and whatever else they needed to tend their garden.

Of course prime real estate in Los Angeles has a habit of finding different uses. While the city owned the land, they had acquired it through eminent domain, paying what was considered a fair market value for the property. Part of the agreement for that eminent domain was that if the land was sold for non-public or non-housing purposes, the original owners had a right to repurchase ten years after the property had originally been condemned.

Ralph Horowitz, one of the partners in the investment firm that was the largest of the nine owners of the property, sued the city for breach of contract. While the city denied his claim, eventually in a closed door negotiation the suit was settled and Horowitz was allowed to repurchase the land for slightly more than the city had paid for it, which was substantially under the market value at the time.

A few months later Horowitz notified the farmers that he was terminating the use of the property as an urban garden and that all the farmers would be evicted as of February 29, 2004. The farmers, who formed a collective known as South Central Farmers Feeding Families, immediately obtained legal counsel from Hadsell and Stormer Inc as well as Kaye, McIane and Bednarski LLP and a lawsuit was filed seeking to invalidate the sale. The litigants were able to obtain an injunction staying the termination date while the legal matter was settled.

The farmers lost the lawsuit and attempted to negotiate with Horowitz to buy the land themselves. Horowitz demanded $16.3M  for the property, more than three times what he’d paid for it less than two years earlier. The farmers eventually raised the funds with the help of the Annenberg Foundation, but Horowitz didn’t respond to the offer because it came after his eviction deadline.

The case had become a cause célèbre in Los Angeles, with celebrity activists such as Baez and Hannah actively protesting the eviction (Hannah would be arrested for tree-sitting in a walnut tree on the property and refusing to leave when the police ordered her out) and on June 13, 2006 at 3am in the morning, the police surrounded the property, evicted the protesting farmers and allowed Horowitz’ contractors to bulldoze the Garden.

This is what most of us saw. What we didn’t see was the political chicanery going on behind the scenes. Of promises made and broken. Of politicians showing support for the Garden but doing nothing to save it, and of community activists whose agenda was less for the community and more for their own profit.

The sympathies of the film lie clearly with the farmers. The main spokespeople, Juarez and Tezozomoc come off very well, speaking passionately and in Tezozomoc’s case quite eruditely on the controversy. Coming off less well are Horowitz, community activist Juanita Tate and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, both of whom are portrayed as corrupt and politically savvy.

This was an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary feature and with good reason. The strength of the farmers, nearly all of whom were from the poorest segment of society, is inspiring as they took on the political powers-that-be in the City of Angels as well as the wealthy segments of society. While it is certainly one-sided, it did capture the facts nicely as well as some of the background as well.

While the story doesn’t end happily for the farmers, it does at least bring to light some of the injustice that took place and made accountable those who gave lip service to serving the people but were in reality serving themselves. That is, unfortunately, all too common a situation today.

WHY RENT THIS: A moving account of underdogs standing up to City Hall and developers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little of the criticism leveled against the activists is explored or even mentioned..

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words used here and there but not so many as to be distressing to parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of June 2011, the site remains a vacant lot with the proposed warehouse and distribution center still unbuilt.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the history of the Garden, as well as a look at celebrities who visited it during the protest. There is also a film festival Q&A with director Kennedy and film critic David Poland.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,931 on an unreported production budget; I’m pretty sure the movie was unprofitable from a box office standpoint.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Fair Game

The Infidel


The Infidel

Omed Djalili spontaneously breaks out into a rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man."

(2010) Comedy (Tribeca) Omid Djalili, Richard Schiff, Archie Panjabi, Igal Naor, Mina Anwar, Amit Shah, Soraya Radford, Miranda Hart, Matt Lucas, James Floyd, Leah Fatania, Ravin Ganatra, Bhasker Patel, Michele Austin, Rod Silvers. Directed by Josh Appignanesi

The variety and scope of cultural diversity among humans is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it gives us so many different viewpoints about the human condition; a curse in that it divides us more than unites us, causes suspicion and violence. Nowhere is that more true than in the middle east.

In that case, it is religion that divides – Muslim and Jew. Each suspicious of the other, each determined to protect themselves in the name of their religion, meaning that if the other one dies, so be it.

Mahmud Nasir (Djalili) is a Muslim living in London. He’s not one of the fundamentalist sorts, but more of a loose, moderate sort – he doesn’t always follow the ways of the Koran to the letter in other words. His son Rashid (Shah) is in love with Uzma (Radford) whose mother has just married Arshad El-Masri (Naor), a fundamentalist fireball whose politics Mahmud doesn’t particularly agree with. He’d much rather watch old videos of the deceased ’80s pop legend Gary Page (Floyd) but since his son needs him to be an ultra-Muslim to impress his prospective father-in-law, Mahmud is willing to do it.

Then, while cleaning out his late mother’s house, he finds some disturbing news. It turns out his mother wasn’t his birth mother – he was adopted. Some digging results in further distress – it turns out that Mahmud was born to a Jewish family and his real name is Solly Shimshillewitz.  I think finding out your name is Solly Shimshillewitz might be distressing to anyone.

A little bit ashamed and scared of what it would mean if his family found out, Mahmud at first hides his newfound background but curious about his heritage, he seeks a neighbor, an American Jewish cabdriver named Lenny (Schiff) to find out more about his Jewishness. Lenny teaches him a few things, like how to say “Oy vay!” and how to dance like Topol. I’m sure the JDL didn’t have any objections to any of those stereotypes.

In the meantime he gets caught up in trying to hide his new identity from his family and friends and to hide his old identity from his new friends. When he gets caught out as you know he has to, he stands to lose everything – including his identity.

This British film has gotten a fair amount of praise in both critical and film festival circles, although it got only a cursory release here in the States. One has to give the filmmakers props for tackling such a sensitive, hot-button issue in the way that they did.

However, good intentions aside, not everything works here. Some of the jokes are simply put, not that funny. The ending, which is a bit out of left field, weakens the movie overall and was a bit of a disappointment. However, the movie works a very good percentage of the time.

Djalili is best known to American audiences as the prison warden in The Mummy (who meets a pretty nasty end) but is better known in Britain as a stand-up comic (he performed for “Comic Relief” in 2004) and his act often contains bits about his life as an Anglo-Iranian, growing up in a Persian household in Britain. He is certainly well-suited for the role and is thoroughly likable in it.

It’s not a bad movie, but it isn’t as good as it might have been either. It’s got enough laughs to make it worth your while, but not enough to inspire a more than cursory search for it. It’s one of those in-between movies that has merit enough to recommend it, but not enough to really praise it. If you have the opportunity to see it, by all means do. I just wouldn’t make a lot of effort to seek it out.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting insights about cultural differences. Very funny when it works.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the humor is a bit broad and the ending is a little bit false.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few F bombs but that’s about it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While BBC Films helped develop the script, they withdrew from further involvement after the Andrew Sachs/Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross scandal made the Beeb somewhat sensitive to any material that might be even a little offensive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and what the filmmakers call “bonus jokes” which are essentially deleted scenes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information unavailable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: New Year’s Eve