The Putin-Friendly Billionaire Trying to Build the Garden of Eden
Billionaire (and ex-Georgia prime minister) Bidzina Ivanishvili’s obsession with shipping exotic trees across oceans to build a “Garden of Eden” is explored in “Taming the Garden.”
On New Year’s Eve of 2015, the government of Adjara, an administrative region in the southwest corner of Georgia, issued a decree granting a company called Zimo Ltd. permission to unearth two swamp cypresses and a 650-ton, 135-year-old tulip tree from the Black Sea coast. For a fee of 6,200 Lari (about $1,875), the company could haul the trees onto boats and ship them 25 miles north, to be replanted in an elaborate park owned by businessman and former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. The decree was not well-received. On the day of the move, the diggers were flanked by 40 police officers, who would later detain five protesters from the activist group Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi for attempting to stop a tractor.
When the barge pushed off from shore, an onlooker snapped a photo. The shot looks out at the gray water where, in the foreground, the massive tulip tree straddles a raft with absurdly slight proportions, like a clown on a tricycle. The photo instantly went viral, consuming the Georgian internet, which dubbed it “the swimming tree”—half in anger, half in surreal disbelief. Activist Mariam Kanchaveli told the BBC she was “mad, sad and at the same time still laughing.” Ivanishvili would later defend himself: “It’s my hobby and I really love big trees,” he said. “Giant trees are my entertainment.”
In the mélee, the swimming tree caught the attention of Georgian filmmaker Salomé Jashi. Her latest documentary, Taming the Garden, which premieres at an all-online Sundance on Jan. 31, takes the photo as its ur-text, tracking the removal of another century-old tree from the seaside village where it was planted to Ivanishvili’s bizarre, private Eden. The 90-minute documentary describes itself as “a poetic ode to the rivalry between men and nature”—a summary which makes the movie sound both more pretentious and more verbal than it actually is. In truth, there is no dialogue until a good seven minutes into the film, and relatively little in the 83 that follow. The production is foremost a visual one, a sequence of primally arresting footage that achieves in almost every frame the demented, quasi-oxymoronic appeal of the image that inspired it.
The summary’s riff on the “rivalry between men and nature” is a bit more apt. The movie operates primarily in a vernacular of contrasts, alternating between some impossibly lush natural setting and crude, man-made appliances, there solely to tear the former down. This motif is not light-handed by any stretch: in the dialogue-less opening, the camera pans across overgrown structures, spliced with close-ups of leaves and steel tools. For the first five minutes, the only sounds are waves, wind, and bird calls—until they’re interrupted by a buzzsaw, and then the clanking of a crane. There are lots of shots of industrial drills cutting into deep soil. (The first words of the film are: “That’s enough!”). The bluntness of the metaphor approaches overkill, but it’s salvaged by the shots, which are restrained, well-composed, and hyper-technical about how the whole thing works. It’s plainly weird and somewhat obscene to dig up a giant tree and put it on a boat—which makes watching the process, broken down with shot-by-shot exactitude, oddly compelling throughout.
Though there is minimal speaking, the conversations included provide, more or less, nearly all the context you’ll get. Jashi offers almost no exposition. The backstory is never explained; the characters are not introduced. Instead, the bigger picture drips out in snippets from the various villagers that walk into frame. The first audible exchange comes when two workers—a scruffy guy in a bucket hat, and a round, balding man—take a break at a picnic table in the woods. Their speech, like nearly all in the movie, stays vague and figurative, never identifiably news or fable.
“Do you know the story of the old woman and the tree?” the scruffy one asks. His bald friend says he doesn’t, sending the first into a long story. There’s this villager with a mandarin orchard, he explains in Georgian, next to a giant tree. The tree’s a real pain: he can’t cut it down without disturbing the orchard, but the branches constantly block the sun. Also, the villager is in debt. “So he goes to the bank to defer the loans, leaving his elderly mother at home,” the man continues, “and just then, the lawyers come to buy the tree. They say, Granny, we want to take this tree! Would you sell it to us? How much do you want for it? So, the Granny says, I don’t know, give me 400! She wanted 400 Lari. The lawyer says, Granny, 400,000 is too much! We’ll give you 40,000!”
The story it turns out is true, and as the workers start digging, more details emerge. The buyer is rich and pretty powerful. It’s unclear exactly what he wants with the tree, but he’s willing to build a road for the town just to get it out. The newspapers say he thinks they’ll prolong his life. In any case, he’s bought a bunch in recent months. Some of the men have been on multiple jobs. “That man really likes trees!” one guy offers during a work break. “He’s never taken one as big as this,” says another. In the background more voices jump in. “It’s an interesting question… No one would have expected it… That’s cool! Suddenly you get money from a tree… And when he has all the trees? Then he’ll go after the birds!”
It isn’t until late in the movie that anyone even says Ivanishvili’s name. When they do, it’s by surname only. There are a lot of things one might mention about Bidzina Ivanishvili—that he burst onto the Georgian political scene in 2011 with his own party, named the “Georgian Dream” after the catchphrase of his albino-rapper son; that, not long after the swimming tree fracas, the Panama Papers investigation revealed he kept vast amounts of his fortune in bank accounts and shell companies offshore, some of which he’d used to fund a disinformation campaign in support of Putin’s military agenda, according to the U.S. government; that he literally lives in a 108,000-square-foot glass house at the top of a hill overlooking the nation’s capital. But the movie addresses none of these. Jashi gives the ex-prime minister the same oblique treatment as everyone else. Even her director’s notes refer only to “a powerful man, who is also the former prime minister of Georgia.” The effect is to render Ivanishvili not so much a man, but a grim and omnipresent idea, as cartoonish and perverse as a very big tree on a tiny little boat.