'The Garden,' An Oscar Underdog

The Garden tells the story of poor urban immigrants struggling to save their South Central Los Angeles farm. The movie is one of the five documentaries up for an Academy Award Sunday.

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ALEX COHEN, Host:

As you heard, Mark didn't mention the five documentaries nominated for the Oscars this year. One of those films is set right here in southern California. It's called The Garden. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the film looks at how some poor immigrants battled to save a farm in an unlikely part of Los Angeles.

CARRIE KAHN: Shot from a helicopter, the opening scenes of The Garden are amazing. Fourteen acres of this lush, green oasis, all surrounded by one of the grittiest, concrete-filled areas of South Central Los Angeles. On the ground, the well-tended plots are filled with trees and food.

Unidentified Man #1: Papaya, si. Cilantro, bananas.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

KAHN: The film, however, moves quickly from green to greed.

Unidentified Man #2: They told me they want us out of the garden. Just like that.

KAHN: A group of farmers, almost all poor urban Latino immigrants stand around an eviction notice posted at the gates of the garden they tended for more than a decade. Filmmaker Scott Kennedy says that's when he started shooting the movie.

Mr. SCOTT KENNEDY (Filmmaker): There was an eviction notice and a very mysterious eviction notice with a possible backroom deal and shady sale, and the best part was that the farmers weren't leaving. They're going to stay there, and it just was a story that needed to be told.

KAHN: That story would take more than four years of Kennedy's life to tell. He followed the battle with an influential developer who laid claim to the land and documented the farmers' battle with City Hall.

Unidentified Man #3: I'm old now, but I have one little piece of hell to raise and that's around these farmers.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

KAHN: And Kennedy cheered when the farmers won court battles.

Mr. KENNEDY: You all should congratulate yourselves because you've fought a good fight and you stood up to the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of people clapping)

KAHN: But ultimately, they lost the war to save the farm and had to watch bulldozers level it.

(Soundbite of motor running)

KAHN: Throughout the protracted struggle and the filmmaker's deft storytelling, alliances shift and ideals are questioned and forsaken. Kennedy says, he's drawn to stories that challenge America's core principles of justice for all and political transparency.

Mr. KENNEDY: That's one of the things that I think fascinates me about the story. How hard it is to maintain that line and what can detract us from that line - greed and self-interest and race and class and all these other things.

KAHN: This is Kennedy's second featured documentary focusing on one of L.A.'s poor communities but his first to ever get an Oscar nomination. He said when he read about the nomination on the Academy Awards Website, he and his wife screamed and then cried.

Mr. KENNEDY: And a lot of just, again, really not like not believing it for awhile, like did a friend spend a lot of money to put up a fake Website, you know. I even don't know what happens. So, but it was - it's just -it's a bit of an amazing - amazing honor.

KAHN: Many of the farmers featured in The Garden feel the same way. But Tesazomo Cortezo(ph), one of the leaders in the fight to save the farm says it's hard to watch so many years of his life turned into a commodity.

Mr. TESAZOMO CORTEZO (Farmer featured in "The Garden"): I mean, my life has been reduced to 80 minutes, right? And I have - I mean, it was very painful.

KAHN: Tezo inherited his plot at the garden from his father.

Mr. TEZO: So, I worked his plot for a couple of years until we were evicted. And then that same year that we were evicted, he passed away, too, so it was a double blow for me.

KAHN: But Tezo and a handful of the evicted farmers have begun farming again. They formed a co-op and bought 85 acres outside Los Angeles. Every Sunday, they can be found at the Hollywood farmers' market selling their organic produce. Alberto Glatelo(ph) left his job at a downtown L.A. garment factory to work full-time at the new farmers' co-op.

Mr. ALBERTO GLATELO (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: He says, he wants to prove to the community that the farmers are like a tree that has had its branches cut but lives on. He says the fight for the garden left them as scarred but much stronger than before. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

MADELEINE BRAND: More to come after this.

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