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Mar 11, 2009

With an Oscar nomination for The Garden, documentary filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy is making a name telling L.A. stories far from Hollywood.

By Luke Y. Thompson

Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary, The Garden, follows the glorious rise and tragic fall of the South Central Farm, a 14-acre community garden at 41st and Alameda in South Central Los Angeles.
This urban farm—the largest of its kind in the United States—was created to help ease the pain that lingered after the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots that devastated the neighborhood in 1992.
Maintained mostly by immigrants from Latin America, the garden provided food for the families living in one of the country’s most economically distressed areas as well as a verdant haven amid the city’s urban sprawl.
The film chronicles the bureaucratic struggle that eventually led to the destruction of this inner-city oasis. Kennedy follows the farmers as they fight their way to City Hall, organizing against the clandestine sale of their garden to a wealthy developer. These days, the once lush land has been reduced to an unused patch of dirt.
The story is rife with shady political dealings, crooked environmental policies, poverty, crime and racial strife. But what ultimately emerges is a tale of a community working to rebuild itself as it struggles to begin healing wounds that have remained long after the garden’s final harvest.

With two critically acclaimed documentaries under his belt and a third on the way, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy is shaping our view of the City of Angels.
“I definitely am not supposed to be on this side of the camera!” exclaims Scott Hamilton Kennedy.
A documentary filmmaker, he is used to being the guy conducting the interviews. But in the weeks leading up to this year’s Academy Awards—for which his second feature documentary, The Garden, was nominated for an Oscar—he’s been finding himself on the other side of the lens. He still isn’t sure it works for him.
“On a documentary, you try to form a relationship with your subjects and find some rapport with them,” he says.
But when TV hosts you’ve never met suddenly starts asking a bunch of questions, a bigger leap of faith is involved.
“Are they gonna try to make me look silly? Or crazy?”
So far, his concern has been unfounded. In his first seven years making documentaries, Kennedy has garnered nothing but acclaim.
His first feature, 2002’s O.T.: Our Town, chronicled a high school drama class in Compton, Calif., and was shortlisted (but not nominated) for an Academy Award.
This year, The Garden, which documents the rise and fall of a community farm in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, was nominated but didn’t win.
Perhaps the third time will be the charm.
Looking at Kennedy, who describes himself as having a “big, pink face,” you’d never expect that he’d be a guy known for making movies set in places like Compton and South Central—largely Caucasian-free neighborhoods frequently name checked by gangster rappers.
“I’m working on my third Los Angeles story,” he says. “It’s called Fame High, and it’s set at a performing arts school in East Los Angeles. My friends tease me that I started in Compton, went to South Central, then to East L.A. I’m on this slow northeast track toward Hollywood. Someday, I’ll make it there.”
In the meantime, Kennedy is telling the important stories Hollywood generally doesn’t hear, like that of the South Central Farm shown in The Garden.
The farm was started after the riots provoked by the beating of Rodney King as a way to help “heal” the community.
Built on land that had been seized through eminent domain, the film documents the farmers’ ongoing fight to save their urban oasis from the original owner who was suing to regain the land.
For Kennedy, the experience of making the film has been emotionally exhausting. “This story has swallowed me up and spit me out several times over,” he says.
But moving on won’t be easy.   
“It breaks my heart to come to the end of this film…I’ve done too many Q&As where I end up with tears in my eyes. It gets a little embarrassing, because people are like, ‘O.K., get it together, man!’”

“No one’s ever gonna agree with you completely. No one’s ever gonna agree with my film completely. They’re gonna accuse you of lying. They’re gonna accuse you of all these different things. So just do your best to communicate clearly and be transparent.”
– Scott Hamilton Kennedy

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