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Georgia: ‘Taming the Garden’: The strange journey of ancient trees to a Georgian billionaire’s mansion | Culture

A century-old tree floats in the middle of the Black Sea. The reflection of its branches on the grey waters only serves to underscore the impossibility of the scene: a 32-foot (10m) tree floating in the sea. On the shore, two locals watch, but they are not surprised: it is not the first time they have seen this kind of scene, and it will surely not be the last. It is a story that has been repeated for some time throughout Georgia, a former Soviet republic located between Russia and Turkey; a story of traveling trees.

We are talking about a movie scene, but it is not a fantasy movie. Taming the Garden is a new documentary by Salomé Jashi, a 41-year-old filmmaker from Tbilisi who told the story of these traveling trees. It begins precisely with that scene: a tree floating under a cloudy sky, on a calm sea. How did it get there? Where does it come from? Where is it going?

Bidzina Ivanishvili is a mysterious character. He is the richest man in Georgia and probably the most powerful one, too: he was elected prime minister of his country in 2012, and only 13 months later he stepped down his post after considering that his job was done. The party he founded, Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, has ruled the country ever since. But he lives away from the public eye, to the point that his fellow Georgians wonder whether he continues to reside in the country.

Salomé Jashi, the director of the documentary.
Salomé Jashi, the director of the documentary.

At the top of a mountain next to the old town of Tbilisi there rises an impossible structure, a kind of cross between a Crusader castle and the international airport of a second-rate Arab emirate. It is Ivanishvili’s estate, the residence where he may or may not live: a steel-and-glass fortress that no Bond villain would look down upon. This house contains some of the most valuable works of Western art – the painting by Picasso Dora Maar with Cat was acquired for $95 million at auction in 2006 – and it is surrounded, on the outside, by dozens of century-old trees which have been born in places other than the one they are planted now.

Where others would have only seen a business transaction, Salomé Jashi saw a story to tell. “It’s a delightful story,” she explains. “[Ivanishvili] gathers large ancient trees. He orders his men to uproot those trees and take them to his garden by sea and land. But in the film all of it becomes the story of the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor.”

“Have you heard the story of the old woman and the tree?” a local man asks another in a scene from the film. They recount how Ivanishvili’s lawyers turned up one day at the home of an elderly woman. They asked her how much she wanted for the tree and the woman said “four hundred.” Four hundred lari is almost €120. “Four hundred thousand is a lot, we can give you 40,000.” The old woman, of course, sold the tree.

It is a story that could have been taken from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, or from a tale by Charles Perrault or by the Brothers Grimm: you would only need to change Ivanishvili for an emir or a prince. His emissaries appear one day and offer fantastic amounts for some trees that their owners do not value. Trees that shaded the orchard or littered the garden with leaves. But as usually happens in fairy tales, all that glitters is not gold.

Transporting gigantic trees is not an easy task. The roads are narrow and surrounded by houses and more trees. In order to move a tree from its place, you have to chop down the ones that are in the way. Some fences have to be removed. Uprooting work requires months. A man complains to the lawyers that they have been bothering him and his neighbors for a long time. The lawyers reply: “You signed a contract.” The man argues and walks away, making vague threats.

A scene from 'Taming the Garden'
A scene from ‘Taming the Garden’

But the film does not take sides. “I think the public is smart enough to connect the dots, make judgments, think, ponder. I’m not a fan of one-dimensional answers, because in life they don’t really exist. How am I going to reach a conclusion in 90 minutes?” argues the filmmaker.

Certainly, it is a complex matter. For every felled tree, there is a repaired road, or a shored-up slope. The lawyers will leave, but the improved infrastructure will remain. Neighbors get more than just money, but they also lose more than just a tree. A woman cries. “So many generations have played under that tree,” she says. In another scene, a man exclaims: “Are we really running out of trees?” Looking around him, we can see that’s not the case.

There are few dialogues in this story. The scenes that follow one another are a testament to the engineering work involved in transporting the trees. Trees that make their way among other trees, advancing very slowly but unstoppably. Around the trees, people seem tiny. It could be seen as the triumph of humanity over the world. It could be seen as the will of a rich man overriding the natural order of things. Jashi chooses not to. She chooses to show the facts with an almost dreamlike lyricism, as if it were a legend or a fable.

“Many different movies could have been made about this event,” says Jashi. “We could have made a movie focused on the rich man, showing him, talking about his hobbies. We could have made an investigative film about the somewhat suspicious role of the state in this process. It is such a big story that a single movie is not enough to tell it. We could have tied the film to a specific moment in time, but I was curious about the metaphorical, symbolic and poetic connotations.”

A gardener waters the transplanted tree. It has passed from the chaos of rural villages to the domesticated order of Ivanishvili’s garden. It seems like it’s been there forever. We do not see the villagers again. We do not know what has happened to their fences, their houses and their roads. Ivanishvili Garden opened to the public in 2020. Visitors make guesses. Why this obsession with trees? Some think Ivanishvili may be a druid that uses the trees in arcane rituals; others think it is simply a display of his power, something he does because he can, in order to show that, despite not having held any political office for years, he can still widen roads and stop trains on a whim.

There are no answers to those questions. The only person who could provide them has no intention of doing so. That is why Jashi refuses to provide context, to draw conclusions. Instead, she prefers to present us the impossible image of a century-old tree, surrounded by mist, floating in the middle of the Black Sea.

‘Taming the Garden’ is available on the streaming platfom Mubi.

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A populist ex-premier who opposes support for Ukraine leads his leftist party to victory in Slovakia | International

A populist former prime minister and his leftist party have won early parliamentary elections in Slovakia, staging a political comeback after campaigning on a pro-Russian and anti-American message, according to almost complete results.

Former Prime Minister Robert Fico and the leftist Smer, or Direction, party had 22.9% of the votes, the Slovak Statistics Office said early Sunday after counting 99.98% of the ballots from some 6,000 polling stations.

Fico said he was ready to open talks with other parties on forming a coalition government as soon as President Zuzana Caputova asks him to do so. “We’re here, we’re ready, we’ve learned something, we’re more experienced,” he said.

“We have clear ideas, we have clear plans,” Fico said. “We know what exactly the government should do.”

Saturday’s election was a test for the small eastern European country’s support for neighboring Ukraine in its war with Russia, and the win by Fico could strain a fragile unity in the European Union and NATO.

Fico, 59, has vowed to withdraw Slovakia’s military support for Ukraine in Russia’s war if his attempt to return to power succeeds.

“People in Slovakia have bigger problems than Ukraine,” he said.

The country of 5.5 million people created in 1993 following the breakup of Czechoslovakia has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine since Russia invaded last February, donating arms and opening the borders for refugees fleeing the war.

Slovakia has delivered to Ukraine its fleet of the Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, the S-300 air defense system, helicopters, armored vehicles and much-needed demining equipment.

The current caretaker government is planning to send Ukraine artillery ammunition and to train Ukrainian service members in demining.

Winning approval for sending more arms to Ukraine is getting more difficult in many countries. In the U.S. Congress, a bill to avert a government shutdown in Washington, D.C., excluded President Joe Biden’s request to provide more security assistance to the war-torn nation.

In other countries, including Germany, France, and Spain, populist parties skeptical of intervention in Ukraine also command significant support. Many of these countries have national or regional elections coming up that could tip the balance of popular opinion away from Kyiv and toward Moscow.

With no party winning a majority of seats in Slovakia, a coalition government will need to be formed.

The president traditionally asks an election’s winner to try to form a government, so Fico is likely to become prime minister again. He served as prime minister in 2006-2010 and again in 2012-2018.

A liberal, pro-West newcomer, the Progressive Slovakia party, was second, with 18% of the votes.

Its leader Michal Simecka, who is deputy president of the European Parliament, said his party respected the result. “But it’s bad news for Slovakia,” he said. “And it would be even worse if Robert Fico manages to create a government.”

He said he’d like try to form a governing coalition if Fico fails.

The left-wing Hlas (Voice) party, led by Fico’s former deputy in Smer, Peter Pellegrini, came in third with 14.7%. Pellegrini parted ways with Fico after the scandal-tainted Smer lost the previous election in 2020, but their possible reunion would boost Fico’s chances to form a government.

Pellegrini replaced Fico as prime minister after he was forced to resign after major anti-government street protests following the 2018 killing of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.

Pellegrini congratulated Fico on his victory but said that two former prime ministers in one government might not work well.

“It’s not ideal but that doesn’t mean such a coalition can’t be created,” he said.

Another potential coalition partner, the ultranationalist Slovak National Party, a clear pro-Russian group, received 5.6%.

Those three parties would have a parliamentary majority if they joined forces in a coalition government.

Fico opposes EU sanctions on Russia, questions whether Ukraine can force out the invading Russian troops and wants to block Ukraine from joining NATO.

He proposes that instead of sending arms to Kyiv, the EU and the U.S. should use their influence to force Russia and Ukraine to strike a compromise peace deal.

Fico’s critics worry that his return to power could lead Slovakia to abandon its course in other ways, following the path of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and to a lesser extent of Poland under the Law and Justice party.

“It can’t be ruled out that he will be looking for a partner who uses similar rhetoric, and the partner will be Viktor Orbán,” said Radoslav Stefancik, an analyst from the University of Economics in Bratislava.

Orbán welcomed Fico’s victory.

“Always good to work together with a patriot,” he posted on X, the former Twitter. “Looking forward to it!”

Hungary has been sanctioned by the EU for alleged rule-of-law violations and corruption, while EU institutions say Poland has been on a slippery slope away from the EU’s rule-of-law principles. Fico has threatened to dismiss investigators from the National Criminal Agency and the special prosecutor who deals with the most serious crimes and corruption.

Hungary also has — uniquely among EU countries — maintained close relations with Moscow and argued against supplying arms to Ukraine or providing it with economic assistance.

Fico repeats Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unsupported claim that the Ukrainian government runs a Nazi state from which ethnic Russians in the country’s east needed protection. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.

Known for foul-mouthed tirades against journalists, Fico also campaigned against immigration and LGBTQ+ rights.

The populist Ordinary People group, the conservative Christian Democrats and the pro-business Freedom and Solidarity also won seats in parliament while the far-right Republic failed to do so.

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Slovakia election pits a pro-Russia former prime minister against a liberal pro-West newcomer | International

Voters in Slovakia cast ballots Saturday in an early parliamentary election that pits a populist former prime minister who campaigned on a pro-Russia and anti-American message against a liberal, pro-West newcomer.

Depending on which of them prevails, the election could reverse the small eastern European country’s support for neighboring Ukraine in the war with Russia, threatening to break a fragile unity in the European Union and NATO.

Former Prime Minister Robert Fico, 59, and his leftist Smer, or Direction, party have vowed to withdraw Slovakia’s military support for Ukraine in Russia’s war, if his attempt to return to power is successful.

Smer’s main challenger is Progressive Slovakia, a liberal party formed in 2017 and led by Michal Simecka, 39, a member of the European Parliament.

Referring to his rival, Fico said Saturday he wished his country would not be run by “amateurs” without experience in politics.

Fico, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018, opposes EU sanctions on Russia, questions whether Ukraine can force out the invading Russian troops and wants to block Ukraine from joining NATO.

He proposes that instead of sending arms to Kyiv, the EU and the U.S. should use their influence to force Russia and Ukraine to strike a compromise peace deal. He has repeated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unsupported claim that the Ukrainian government runs a Nazi state.

Fico also campaigned against immigration and LGBTQ+ rights and threatened to dismiss investigators from the National Criminal Agency and the special prosecutor who deal with corruption and other serious crimes.

Progressive Slovakia sees the country’s future as firmly tied to its existing membership in the EU and NATO.

The party vowed to continue Slovakia’s support for Ukraine. It also favors LGBTQ+ rights, a rarity among the major parties in a country that is a stronghold of conservative Roman Catholicism.

“Every single vote matters,” the party’s head, Michal Simecka, said on Saturday.

Popular among young people, the party won the 2019 European Parliament election in Slovakia in coalition with the Together party, gaining more than 20% of the vote. But it narrowly failed to win seats in the national parliament in 2020.

No party is expected to win a majority of seats Saturday, meaning a coalition government will need to be formed. The party that secures the most votes typically gets the first chance to put together a government.

Polls indicate that seven or eight other political groups and parties might surpass a 5% threshold needed for representation in the 150-seat National Council.

Among them is the left-wing Hlas (Voice), led by Fico’s former deputy in Smer, Peter Pellegrini. They parted ways after Smer lost the previous election in 2020 but their possible reunion would boost Fico’s chances to rule.

“It’s important for me that the new coalition would be formed by such parties that can agree on the priorities for Slovakia and ensure stability and calm,” Pellegrini said after voting in Bratislava.

The others include the Republic, a far-right group led by former members of the openly neo-Nazi People’s Party Our Slovakia whose members use Nazi salutes and want Slovakia out of the EU and NATO.

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“The Creator”: A Glimpse Into A Future Defined By Artificial Intelligence (AI) Warfare

By Cindy Porter

In “The Creator” visionary director Gareth Edwards thrusts us into the heart of a dystopian future, where the battle lines are drawn between artificial intelligence and the free Western world.

Set against the backdrop of a post-rebellion Los Angeles, the film grapples with pressing questions about the role of AI in our society.

A Glimpse into a Future Defined by Artificial Intelligence (AI) Warfare

A Glimpse into a Future Defined by Artificial Intelligence (AI) Warfare

While the narrative treads familiar ground, it is timely, given the rising prominence of artificial intelligence in our daily lives.

A Fusion of Genres

Edwards embarks on an ambitious endeavor, blending elements of science fiction classics with contemporary themes.

The result is a cinematic stew reminiscent of James Cameron’s “Aliens” tinged with shades of “Blade Runner” a dash of “Children of Men,” and a sprinkle of “Akira” This concoction, while intriguing, occasionally veers toward familiarity rather than forging its own distinct identity.

Edwards’ Cinematic Journey

The British filmmaker, known for his foray into doomsday scenarios with the BBC docudrama “End Day” in 2005, has traversed a path from indie gem “Monsters” (2010) to the expansive Star Wars universe with “Rogue One” (2016).

“The Creator” marks another bold step in his repertoire. The film introduces compelling concepts like the posthumous donation of personality traits, punctuated by impactful visuals, and raises pertinent ethical dilemmas. It stands as a commendable endeavor, even if it occasionally falters in execution.

Navigating Complexity

In his pursuit of depth, Edwards at times stumbles into the realm of convolution, leaving the audience grappling with intricacies rather than immersing in the narrative.

While adept at crafting visual spectacles and orchestrating soundscapes, the film occasionally falters in the art of storytelling.

In an era where classic storytelling is seemingly on the wane, some may argue that this approach is emblematic of the times.

AI: Savior or Peril?

“The Creator” leaves us with a question that resonates long after the credits roll: Will artificial intelligence be humanity’s salvation or its undoing? The film’s take on machine ethics leans toward simplicity, attributing AI emotions to programmed responses.

This portrayal encapsulates the film’s stance on the subject – a theme as enigmatic as the AI it grapples with.

“The Creator”

Director: Gareth Edwards.
Starring: John David Washington, Gemma Chan, Madeleine Yuna Boyles, Ken Watanabe.
Genre: Science fiction.
Release Year: 2023.
Duration: 133 minutes.
Premiere Date: September 29.


Top 5 Movies by Gareth Edwards:

1. “Monsters” (2010)

– A breakout hit, “Monsters” showcases Edwards’ talent for blending intimate human drama with towering sci-fi spectacles. Set in a world recovering from an alien invasion, it’s a poignant tale of love amidst chaos.

2. “Rogue One” (2016)

– Edwards helms this epic Star Wars installment, seamlessly integrating new characters with the beloved original trilogy. It’s a testament to his ability to navigate complex narratives on a grand scale.

3. “End Day” (2005)

– This BBC docudrama marked Edwards’ entry into the world of speculative storytelling. Presenting five doomsday scenarios, it set the stage for his later exploration of dystopian futures.

4. “The Creator” (2023)

– Edwards’ latest venture, “The Creator,” immerses audiences in a future fraught with AI warfare. While not without its challenges, it boldly tackles pertinent questions about the role of artificial intelligence in our lives.

5. Potential Future Project

– As Edwards continues to push the boundaries of speculative cinema, audiences eagerly anticipate his next cinematic endeavor, poised to be another thought-provoking addition to his illustrious filmography.

“The Creator” stands as a testament to Gareth Edwards’ unyielding vision and his penchant for exploring the frontiers of speculative cinema.

While it doesn’t shy away from the complexities of AI, it occasionally falters in navigating its intricate narrative.

As we peer into this cinematic crystal ball, we’re left with a stark question: Will artificial intelligence be our beacon of hope, or will it cast a shadow over humanity’s future? Only time will unveil the answer.

We Can’t Thank You Enough For Your Support!

— By Cindy Porter

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