‘Can You Dig This’: LAFF Review

Can You Dig This Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Delirio Films

Can You Dig This Still - H 2015

Engaging subjects lend brightness and oomph to an important subject 

Delila Vallot’s debut documentary profiles urban gardeners in South Los Angeles

Can You Dig This is neither the first documentary on the urban gardening movement, nor the first to focus on its impact in impoverished sections of Los Angeles. The Oscar-nominated The Garden, for one, chronicled the struggle to save a huge community garden from L.A. developers’ bulldozers. But Delila Vallot’s film operates on a more intimate scale. Focusing on smaller horticultural projects and a handful of gardeners, from tentative newbies to internationally recognized activists, she tells a story of uplift.

The advocacy doc makes persuasive points about the transformative value of growing your own food, for individuals and neighborhoods alike. It then repeats them, varying the angle ever so slightly. But even as Vallot goes over the same ground, her compassionate and discerning eye for detail makes for engaging and often delightful viewing. John Legend’s involvement as an executive producer will boost prospects for the doc, which received its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

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A dynamic opening montage places Hollywood in the director’s rearview mirror as she hits the freeway for Compton, Watts and other sections of South Los Angeles where poverty is rampant and food choices are few. Her concise voiceover introduces a deeply personal thread: Her father, she says, is dying, and he lived in this area of the city while she grew up with her mother in Hollywood, 10 very long miles away. That she never again directly picks up this theme is a source of frustration, but in subtle ways it finds expression in some of her exchanges with interviewees.

The best known of these is Ron Finley, the self-described renegade gardener who planted a “food forest” in front of his home — the striking vibrancy of its bounty well captured by Vallot, serving as director of photography. Finley’s garden has amazed passersby, fed hungry neighbors and provoked a citation from the city, putting him in the forefront of a push to overturn counterproductive regulations about the use of municipal land. His story has been told elsewhere, no doubt more comprehensively, by journalists including Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and by Finley himself, who stepped into the spotlight to deliver a TED Talk. Here he serves as an exemplar of ardor and self-sufficiency. But the film’s unsung heroes are its emotional heart.

They’re introduced by first name only, and their areas of activity are introduced by crisp motion graphics that combine maps and illustrations. Twentysomethings Mychael “Spicey” Evans and Kenya Johnson join the Compton Community Garden with different expectations. He’s initially more interested in cultivating marijuana than vegetables, while she’s determined to shake off a painful past and pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. “You up and change,” she says. Vallot witnesses setbacks and breakthroughs for both of them.

At a halfway house for released prisoners, Hosea Smith is thrilled at the chance to get his hands into the earth; during his 30-year sentence, the Arkansas native would sneak tiny plants into his cell whenever he could. His infectious smile is one of the most memorable things in the film, and the bond he forms with a fellow halfway house resident over their garden project is its most moving — “a brotherly thing,” Hosea calls it.

Stealing the show is the irrepressible Quimonie Lewis, an eight-year-old with a take-charge entrepreneurial spirit, always alert to ways to help her parents pay the bills. At her housing project’s community garden, she’s a natural leader, a kid having fun and a maternal figure eyeing income opportunities and ways to get her dad to eat healthier. She also alerts Vallot when the battery on her camera is low.

Vallot, an actress and dancer whose only other directing venture was a crime drama, Tunnel Vision, has put together a deeply felt composite portrait of well-chosen subjects. Her interviewees talk of the calm they find in the garden; the film speaks to a sense of dignity. Despite the film’s repetitious stretches, its momentum remains strong thanks to sharp editing by Asako Ushio and Billy McMillin and a textured and exceptionally unobtrusive score by David Andrew Sitek (of the band TV on the Radio).

As to the enormity of the economic/social divide between South Los Angeles and the director’s Hollywood home, it becomes especially evident as she observes and interacts with Spicey. He explains some of the street action unfolding around them and can only shake his head and laugh when she asks about his feelings and dreams; such self-reflection is foreign to him. By film’s end he has weathered more jail time (for charges that probably wouldn’t have been brought in a white neighborhood) and is turning a major corner. And he’s more drawn to the garden than ever.

Production companies: Delirio Films in association with Fusion Media and Get Lifted Film Co.
With: Ron Finley, Mychael “Spicey” Evans, Kenya Johnson, Quimonie Lewis, Hosea Smith
Director: Delila Vallot
Producers: Rafael Marmor, Christopher Leggett, Delila Vallot
Executive producers: John Legend, Ty Stiklorius, Mike Jackson, Ron Finley
Director of photography: Delila Vallot
Editor: Asako Ushio
Supervising editor: Billy McMillin
Composer: David Andrew Sitek

No rating, 84 minutes