From his first day of shooting until its premiere in L.A. last week, Scott Hamilton Kennedy spent more than four years working on The Garden.
"But my fascination with the story never waned," Kennedy says in a telephone interview. "The story got more and more complicated.
"I thought this would be a courtroom drama. But it wasn't. It just kept getting more and more fascinating. It was difficult to hold on - but I wanted an ending."
Nominated for an Academy Award, The Garden chronicles the struggle between a group of urban farmers in Los Angeles and the developer who claims ownership of the 14-acre tract where they've created a collective of small gardens that provide their families with fruits and vegetables.
The site, in South Central L.A., had been decimated during the 1992 Rodney King riots. When the urban farmers - most of them immigrants with English as a second language - asked for the opportunity to repurpose the land for their gardens, they got no objection.
Ten years later, however, the developer, Ralph Horowitz, decided he wanted the land back to build warehouses. Though it initially seemed like an open-and-shut case, the collective fought back, seeking and winning an injunction against Horowitz, in order to save their inner-city Eden. Further investigation revealed that, in fact, Horowitz had lost the land to the city in an eminent-domain case - then had crafted a sweetheart deal involving L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, never publicized, to buy the land back at a fraction of its value.
Even as Horowitz was seeking an eviction notice against the farmers, Kennedy entered the picture, cameras rolling.
"I literally got off a plane and started shooting the next day," says Kennedy, who also directed OT: Our Town, about an inner-city high school production of Thornton Wilder's play. "It had so many elements of a great story."
Kennedy shot for the next two and a half years, as the struggle between Horowitz and the collective went back and forth, through injunctions, rallies, tactical victories, legal setbacks and internecine squabbling - between Latino and African-American elements of the South Central neighborhood and within the garden collective itself.
"I had an allegiance to the garden," Kennedy says. "As a citizen of Los Angeles and America, I thought it was a kind of miracle that it had gotten started at all. It seemed synonymous with how democracy works. South Central had been destroyed; this community had come together and come up with a plan. My love and respect for the farmers came later."
Still, as the members of the collective began to argue among themselves - about how many plots each member could have, about selling the produce they grew - Kennedy realized that idealistic vision only goes so far.
"One of the subtexts of the film is that it's really hard to maintain an idea and not be sidetracked by ego, self-interest, race, power - things like that," he says. "That kind of stuff can derail any of us. That became a subplot of the film. I don't know if the black and brown communities teamed up if they'd be more powerful than that blend of ego and power, which are sticky things."
Perry winds up as a villain of the piece: A public servant who mouths platitudes about community development but who seems mostly concerned about settling political scores and helping friends make deals.
"Jan Perry did nothing illegal," Kennedy asserts. "But she lied about what she'd do about the garden. It wasn't illegal - but was what she did immoral? Or unethical? You can watch and decide."
Similarly, Kennedy points to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is seen at a rally for the garden during his run for mayor - but who ultimately sidestepped an opportunity to help the collective in its struggle against the developer.
"Some people feel the mayor gave them a lot of double-talk," Kennedy says. "At a minimum, I saw a failure of nerve. He said so many times that he was in support of their cause. But he didn't take that extra step."
After the time and money put into the film, earning an Oscar nomination before its release was a valuable validation of his work, Kennedy says.
"It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders," he says. "Hopefully, it will allow people to see the film - and will help me find money for my next one. It's a kind of badge of quality. I'm not expecting to set any box-office records, but it will help with awareness of the film when it comes out."
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