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“At Times Calm, at Times Violent”: DPs Salomé Jashi and Goga Devdariani on Taming the Garden

Taming the Garden

Trees represent so much in Salomé Jashi’s scintillating documentary Taming the Garden. On the surface its an exploration of a former Georgian prime minister’s obsession with uprooting ancient trees and transporting them to his estate across the Black Sea. Digging deeper, it explores the immense class disparity and infringements of small communities and their local histories. Jashi and her co-cinematographer Goga Devdariani walk us through how they framed trees as the “protagonist” of their film and the multilayered impact of their subjects as images.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Devdariani: Some years ago one particular story circulated in Georgian media and social network causing much of excitement. The story touched upon a Georgian oligarch’s plan to construct a park next to his house. An image of a tree sailing towards his park was the most exciting. This rich man intended to gather large century old trees, dig them out in villages and forests and bring them next to his residency. The route to his park lay through the land and the Black Sea. The story was controversial and caused much debate in the country. This image and the whole story were bizarre and mystical. So I more than happy to agree on Salomé Jashi’s proposition to be involved as a co-cinematographer for Taming the Garden. I have always been attracted to Salomé’s  filmmaking vision. I had collaborated with her on the opening scene of her previous film The Dazzling Light of Sunset. And I knew what we intended to film was not just a description of an unordinary event. 

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Devdariani: The visual style took its shape as we filmed. We knew from the beginning that we favored static wide shots. The images in front of us, the story in front of us was unveiling in such an interesting and mysterious way, that our goal was just to capture this atmosphere keeping ourselves out, remaining observers. But at the same time we were also part of this chain of events, which looked like some kind of sacred ritual.

Jashi: The visual storytelling was primary. We were after certain epic scenes—tableau-like one off shots—that would not just tell the story of transplantation, but also trigger emotion deep inside, awaken inner cords of metaphors and resemblances. With Goga we were filming the story of moving trees but through these images we wanted to show much more than that, the meaning behind what we were witnessing. We would discuss and analyze every scene, contemplating upon what added layers they were bringing. For example one layer we were after was eroticism of this whole process, at times calm, at times violent. Or we wanted to create a difference between the interior scenes, where people dare to be vigorous, and the exterior, where people comply. 

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Jashi: Before the start of shooting, I happened to be in Berlin, where Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery) is a fantastic source of inspiration. There I searched for visual inspiration among the Renaissance, mostly Dutch and Flemish paintings. I was interested in how landscapes and the sea were rendered. What the composition and perspective was. I was also interested in paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and the Younger, Hieronymus Bosch and Lucas Cranach, especially curious of their representation of mass scenes and how they show or evoke an uneasy atmosphere or horror, a secret behind. And then, when we went filming, of course these paintings were not always in my mind. They lingered somewhere on the bottom of my subconscious. 

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Jashi: The most interesting challenge on certain scenes was the perception of scale and the real time slow pace. When we film people, we are so aware of their size, scale that it’s easy to plan a shot. We know how one might look as they come closer or move further from the camera. We can plan a shot before they appear, and we know what their eyesight level is. With trees becoming the main protagonists, it was curious to observe how these perspectives were shattered. It became tricky to calculate width of a shot in anticipation for a moving tree to enter it and create a perfect composition. On such a scale the human eye can have an imprecise perception of height and width. The other challenge was the pace of the real life action. The works of digging and lifting a tree are hard to grasp. One cannot really see a change in a single image, in a single action. Sometimes these actions would last for a day, or days, or even a month until we could see a change, a development. So our work included many days of research and anticipation. 

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Devdariani: We mostly shot on Canon C200 (starting early production with Canon C100). We chose this camera because of its compact size. It can be easily operated on the go and produces a valuable image quality. We used this camera with Zeiss Distagon T 21mm prime lens. We also had to use a drone on a couple occasions to capture a bird’s-eye view but it was important for it not to feel like a drone.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Devdariani: Light for me as an energy is the main component of the image and its story. The light exposes the depth, the texture, the character. Today combining and mixing new technologies of lights create new interesting opportunities, however in the film we worked with natural and practical lighting. 

Jashi: Most of our shots are exteriors so we embraced the natural light of dawn, morning and evening. For night shoots we used our heavy-duty torchlight to naturally combine it with the flashlights of the workers.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Devdariani: The filming was not connected as much to technical challenges, but rather to emotional confrontations. We had to stay outsiders, remain neutral in front of the scenes we would witness. This was most difficult. 

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Devdariani: The work of a cinematographer is not just to create “beautiful shots.” Neither during filming nor in post we were looking for perfect polished shots. The DI just underlined what we had in mind, where every detail matters, every spot of color contributes to creating the atmosphere, and the story. The biggest challenge in DI was the night scenes. We had worked with the local practical light used by workers on locations and in DI we embraced the obscurity, rather than trying to brighter up the scenes. 

TECH BOX

Film Title: Taming the Garden

Camera: Canon C200, Canon C100

Lenses: Zeiss Distagon T 21mm, Canon EF 24-70mm

Lighting: Natural, practical

Processing: Avid

Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve

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