How a Billionaire Bought an Ecosystem

A tree grows in the garden. It is strong and its roots reach into the underworld. The branches spread into the heavens; the tree itself is a channel of communication, a ladder between the two realms. So goes a Georgian myth about how the universe is structured. But now trees have been moved from Georgian homes into the garden of a billionaire. Does it disrupt a tradition, a story, an allegory? Yes, it does.

In 2020, Georgia’s former prime minister and the country’s only billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, opened nearly 150 acres of his private land to the public in the form of Shekvetili Dendrological Park in western Georgia. The park’s most remarkable aspect is its transplanted magnolias, oaks, eucalyptuses, and linden trees. They were brought here from villages along the coast of the Black Sea, where low-income residents sold the century-old trees, often to pay off bank debts and make ends meet. These difficult choices left literal holes in the village’s topography and memory. Independent Georgian filmmaker Salomé Jashi documented parts of this process in her 2021 film Taming the Garden.

Taming the Garden, dir. Salomé Jashi, 2021

The film is a meditation on constancy, change brought about by the will and wealth of one person, and complex ecosystems eroding in the face of economic challenges, but also about migration and rootlessness. The film presents lyrical images interspersed with interviews with the people involved in the sale of the trees. Moving far beyond local and regional politics, Jashi translates the narrative into a universal story. The film has received wide acclaim internationally. It premiered at Sundance Festival and was presented at Berlin International Film Festival as well as Locarno and Saó Paolo film festivals. Yet it has been met with opposition in Georgia. It was attacked on political grounds and banned from the cinemas. This past June, Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, voiced his concern that it misrepresents Georgia to the world and embarrasses the nation.

In 2022 Jashi reached out to her audience via her Facebook page and asked for independent spaces to screen the film since major cinemas would not. Over 2000 people have attended these screenings. Apparently, a majestic tree moving across the Black Sea is too threatening for the current right-leaning government, which has opposed sanctioning Russia in the wake of the Ukraine war. With lush, sweeping images that show the trees’ transplantation, Taming the Garden centers the uprooting of nature by a billionaire who made his fortune in the murky waters of 1990s Russia. The film’s impact comes from trying to imagine a different ending or envisioning change against the forces of wealth and power.

Taming the Garden, dir. Salomé Jashi, 2021

Taming the Garden screens at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley, California) on September 14, as part of the film series Georgian Filmmaker Salomé Jashi in Person.

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