Reviewing Movies: The Garden

These words are not enough. From the IMDb website we learn in the award-winning documentary, The Garden, that the "Electricity Garden" refers to "a desolate section of Tel Aviv where young [straight and gay] prostitutes and drug addicts gather. It's a territory for the dispossessed (the irony of its name not lost on anyone who enters or escapes) and for pickups, drug deals, and clashes with the law." (link) This is not entertainment; this is not merely a documentary; this is life for far too many in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Kids are either an inconvenience or objects for sex or work.

From the same IMDb source we learn: "Over the course of one year, filmmakers Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash follow two young men who have made the Garden their home: Nino, a 17-year-old Palestinian living illegally in Israel, in and out of jail and reformatories; and Dudu, a Arab-Israeli self-destructing under the debilitation of drug addiction," prostitution, and hopelessness. (link) They will both "turn tricks," i.e., get paid for sexual favors from men, for between $40 to $65 USD. Hopelessness is the only true stabilizing force for these two young men in a very broken world.

Beaten, shot at, tormented and abused physically and sexually by men, authorities, and their own family members, Nino (a restless and aimless young man who doesn't know what to get into next) and Dudu (on the streets since he was 9 years old) only know the streets, "clients," and living wherever and with whomever will allow them to rest their heads. Nino and Dudu meet and immediately engage in a misunderstood fist fight; but when they learn that they are both displaced vagrants, they become fast, inseparable friends. Prostitution is, for both young men, merely a means of survival in a relentless, violent, cruel and dark world. At 51 minutes into this documentary, Dudu states, "I don't get into those cars willingly: I do it 'cuz I have to, 'cuz I wanna live."

He hates his life in Tel Aviv but cannot go to Jerusalem because he will be killed. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is framed in terms not only of ethnicity but also land: meanwhile the casualties of this on-going conflict get lost and tangled in a web of survival that takes its toll on their very souls. So, while many evangelicals in the West insist that they "side with Israel," because they imagine that the Jewish people are God's people, in a covenanted sense stemming from the Old Testament, peace between the peoples in these regions is perpetually fractured and the cost is devastating for young men engaged in the cultural war into which they were birthed.

Nino is caught selling drugs to a female undercover cop. After four months in the Tel Aviv jail he is released but obligated to attend a Reformatory. Nino takes a train with his buddy, Dudu, to the Reformatory, but Dudu still has his earrings in, a sign to the boys at the Reformatory that he is gay. If the boys find out that Nino is a teenage prostitute who sexually pleases men, and friends with a gay guy, they will beat him, burn his face, or rape him -- they will rape him not because they want him, in a sexual sense, but as a means to dishonor his inherited masculinity. Nino, as predicted by his friend, Dudu, runs away from the Reformatory: he's a street kid, a free bird, that cannot or, better, will not, be captured -- except perhaps by his best friend.

Nino doesn't expect to live long on this earth. At times he doesn't care. But I think he does care; and I think he wants someone other than himself to care for him, to help him, though he does often display an attitude of one who refuses to be helped. He despises discipline, doesn't heed good advice, and has established immature and irresponsible "partying" as his ultimate goal. He's a bit of a dreamer but one without a specific dream; he fails to make a plan and then see it through. He's a child, really, all alone in a world that tends not to care whether he lives or dies. He's an object of sexual pleasure to some, a lost and unruly boy to Israeli authorities, but, at least to me, someone created in the image of God who deserves better than this manner of life.

The filmmakers are allowed seemingly unlimited insight into the daily and, more importantly, nightly goings-on of these two young men -- even when Nino turns toward a teen outreach (via a van parked on the street). He confesses that he wouldn't mind spending the rest of his life in jail (because there he can be fed and clothed) as long as his family would come to visit him. Do you see what Nino really wants out of life? He longs solely for the essentials: food, clothes, and love. He says he feels like running away but he has nowhere (and no one) to run to.

I state above that Nino and Dudu have only hopelessness as a constant but I think there may be one supreme constant: their friendship. Nino threatens Dudu that he will withdraw his friendship -- the only valuable possession either one of them has -- if he uses heroin once more. He swears on their friendship and on God that he will never use heroin again. Meanwhile Dudu confesses that he can get out of The Garden whenever he wants; I wonder if that is true. He continues to say that many others have been in The Garden for years, and that they can't get out, that "it's like this Garden is in their blood." I am at times amazed at what manner of life we can get used to.

As a commentary on life, in general, Dudu says that even shit is better off than they are because at least it has the sewer for a home: "it finds its place [of belonging]." Imagine thinking that bodily waste if far better off than your own current predicament, in which you feel utterly helpless, hopeless, a place where you maintain no absolute worth, no love, no sense of belonging. One asks the other: "When are we gonna live our lives?" To which the other answers: "When God dies." In other words, never.


RATING: 5 out of 5


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.