Following Los Angeles elected officials while filming “The Garden” didn’t quite make Oscar-nominated documentarian Scott Hamilton Kennedy want to switch careers.
“I’m sure glad I’m not a politician. It’s a crappy job,” he said to the audience at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. Despite his frustrations with the City Council’s failure to save the 14-acre South L.A. community farm, Kennedy sympathized with politicians for “how hard it is to maintain that line and not get sidetracked by greed and self-interest and race.”
His fellow guest, actress and environmentalist Daryl Hannah, was less impressed. “Very generous of you,” she replied, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
Documenting efforts to save the South Central farm immediately attracted Kennedy. “There was just so much story there,” he said, noting that he started filming the day after he first set foot in the garden. His film follows farmers and their supporters as they try to stop a developer from claiming the land and constructing a warehouse. Shooting started only two weeks before the farmers received their first eviction notice, and Kennedy continued to follow the story for years as the farmers won successive appeals.
Along the way, Kennedy captured what moderator and Los Angeles Times editor Dean Kuipers called “a major City Hall corruption scandal.” A “shady backroom deal,” in Kennedy’s words, led to the return of the farmland at below market value to developer Ralph Horowitz. Horowitz had sued unsuccessfully to reclaim the land – which the city bought from him through an eminent domain proceeding but which was never used for the intended purpose of building a trash incinerator. Having a small crew sometimes helped with gaining access, Kennedy noted during Q&A. “I can blend in a little bit more,” he said, adding that it was often just him holding a camera. But some elements didn’t come into place until Kennedy edited the film – when, for example, he found and was able to include some key testimony from Horowitz’s deposition.
Kennedy also captured the star-studded protest to save the land. Hannah joined that effort, living on the farm for nearly a month, risking a vertigo flare-up by keeping lookout from a tree, and getting arrested. “I was blown away by not only the people I met but what they were doing,” she said. “Making food available and affordable – every single aspect of that place was a brilliant inspiration.”
South Central Farmers activist Tezozomoc, a central figure in the film who goes by Tezo, provided some more behind-the-scenes information on the fight for the farm. Los Angeles’ ninth City Council district, which contains the farm, is “the richest and simultaneously the poorest” district, home to major real estate developers’ land and very low income families, dividing political loyalties. “I think we have to blame all the politicians,” Tezo said during Q&A. “There was always the option to use eminent domain [to keep the farmland] but they all shied away from that.”
The city could also have considered matching a grant promised by the Annenberg Foundation for buying the farm. (Ultimately, however, Horowitz said he wouldn’t sell to the farmers for any price, alleging their anti-Semitism. The farmers refuted the charge.) For Tezo, the buck stopped at Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who, he said, could have overridden councilwoman Jan Perry’s opposition to the farm. “He had to choose whether to risk saving [the farm] or to save his political career,” Tezo said.
Kennedy noted too that the perfect might have become the enemy of the good: compromises on how to use the land might have worked, like offering Horowitz a different parcel, or putting both a business development and farmland on the original property.
The farmers’ are still appealing for the return of the land. For years, Horowitz has slated the land for a warehouse for clothing makers Forever 21, initially set to be shaped like a lower-case h. “For hubris,” Tezo joked. Forever 21, Kennedy noted, gave Villaraigosa over a million dollars in campaign contributions, which went in part to his campaign to plant one million trees in L.A.
For now, though, the land is still empty. The farmers successfully demanded that Horowitz submit an environmental impact report to the city, which buys them some more time. They’re still fighting in court, despite what Tezo called “a double standard in the legal system.”
“I always ask Scott, do you feel like a Mexican yet?” Tezo joked.
The farmers have won the support of several environmental experts on the impact of diesel trucks, which Tezo believes will strengthen their case against the building of the warehouse. And they’re boycotting Forever 21. “We’re ready for battle,” Tezozomoc said. “We continue to be fully committed to saving that land.”
Watch the video here.
See more photos here.
*Photo by Aaron Salcido.