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Meet the Academy Award® Nominees: Scott Hamilton Kennedy--'The Garden'

By Tom White

Over the next ten days, we at IDA will be introducing--and in some cases, re-introducing--our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase that we presented last summer, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Scott Hamilton Kennedy, director /producer of The Garden, which is nominated in the Documentary Feature category.

Synopsis: The 14-acre community garden at 41st and Alameda in South Central Los Angeles is the largest of its kind in the United States. Started as a form of healing after the devastating LA riots in 1992, the South Central Farmers have since created a miracle in one of the country's most blighted neighborhoods. Growing their own food. Feeding their families. Creating a community. But now, bulldozers are poised to level their 14-acre oasis. The Garden follows the plight of the farmers, from the tilled soil of this urban farm to the polished marble of City Hall. Mostly immigrants from Latin America, from countries where they feared for their lives if they were to speak out, we watch them organize, fight back and demand answers.


Photo: Don Normark/Black Valley Films


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Scott Hamilton Kennedy: The first film internship I ever had was in the summer after graduating from college, and it was with the wonderful filmmaker and professor, Richard (Dickie) P. Rogers. He was my mentor and friend. The Garden is dedicated to Dickie.

But, while being fascinated with documentaries my entire life, it wasn't until many, many years later, when a few things came together to allow me to make my first film--first, meeting my wife-to-be, who, as a high school teacher in Compton, Calif., wanted to put on the school's first play in over 20 years, and she chose Our Town as the play; this triggered a big and wonderful light bulb in my head. The other element was the fact that the technology of 3-chip prosumer cameras and Final Cut Pro editing software made it possible to make a "real" movie for an incredibly small amount of money.

IDA: What inspired you to make The Garden?

SHK: When my good friend and co-producer, Dominque Derrenger, discovered the struggle at the garden and brought it to my attention, it was another light-bulb moment: the largest community garden in the country, 14 acres, born as a form of healing out of the ashes of the LA riots of 1992, and now there was a shady deal to sell the property to a developer who would raze the garden. To top it all off, the farmers felt something wasn't right and they were going to fight. As a filmmaker, especially a documentary filmmaker, when that much story presents itself to you, you need to pay attention.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

SHK: It was a combination of the daunting production challenges: having little or no money to capture a story that spanned over four years, with multiple characters and complicated twists and turns. This same challenge was compounded in the editing room, where we then had to try and figure out how to tell this story in a way that would be clear, compelling and maybe even entertaining. How did we overcome theses challenges? By not giving up, and through lots of re-editing!

IDAHow did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

SHK: What's "pre-production"? I'm kidding of course, but we literally went from hearing about the story to the first day of shooting in about three days. That said, the story and characters gave us lots of twists and turns, and we were often just trying to capture it as it happened. And while we knew the story we wanted to tell, it was really in the editing process that we saw the depth of the material. And that was wonderful--and of course daunting.

IDA: As you've screened The Garden--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

SHK: The farmers' response has been very emotional on many levels. They are very proud to see their story--the most complete story--told, in the necessary detail that sound-bite news shows more often than not skim over. They are happy to have a document to show their children and grandchildren what they accomplished turning a 14-acre "dump" into the largest community garden in the country, with over 500 trees and almost every kind of fruit, vegetable and medicinal herbs you could imagine. And something else grew out of this location: a political movement. A group of people who mostly had never had a political voice before got organized and showed that, while they may not win every battle, they can have an influence on this system we call the United States of America. Of course, reliving some of the moments were painful, but they are very proud that their story was captured.

The audience reaction has also been very strong, for all of the reasons we have talked about above: dissatisfaction with government to "do right by all," disenfranchisement, etc.

But, as a filmmaker, possibly the most satisfying thing has been to have people tell me how much they enjoyed it as a film experience. While it deals with many important and timely political and social issues, these issues are part of an engaging underdog story that unfolds as you watch it, with great characters, surprises, cliffhangers, triumphs and heartbreak that you have in the best scripted films. And that experience is heightened because not only is the story true, but because we did our best to capture the story in the "vérité" style where scenes play out on their own, as they happened.

I would say the most surprising thing is how much the film makes people think and talk, and about so many different themes and ideas. That is very exciting.

IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination? Although it's only been three weeks since the announcement, how do you anticipate this nomination will impact your career as a filmmaker?

SHK: In my boxer shorts, in my home office/editing room, at 6:12 a.m., scanning the computer with one hand, and holding onto my wife with the other. It was quite amazing to see our name on that list. Lots of screaming, hugging and a few tears.

In terms of my career, wow, that's tough to say. I sure as heck am not going to start making any wild predictions about everything becoming "easy street." But it is a great honor to think about being called "an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker" for the rest of my life. What I hope is that it gives me the confidence to keep telling and capturing the stories that I want to tell. And maybe, just maybe, it might make it a little easier to find other people who find these stories worth their time and financial investment.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

SHK: Well, I have already mentioned Richard P. Rogers. Others include Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A. in particular for The Garden), Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams (not only for the mastery of its storytelling, but also for the humble and generous spirit of its filmmakers, Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx), Four Days in September, The Times of Harvey Milk, Salesman.

And so many more, from the narrative world as well, of course--Martin Scorsese, Christopher Guest, Louis Malle, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuarón...I can't begin to name them all.

The Garden will be screening Saturday, February 21 at 3:15 p.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, as part of DocuDay LA, and Sunday, February 22, at 1:00 p.m. at the Paley Center for Media in New York City as part of DocuDay NY.

For more information on DocuDay LA, click here.

For more information on DocuDay NY, click here.