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Tribeca Takes: Scott Hamilton Kennedy The Garden

Academy Award nominee (and TFF alum) Scott Hamilton Kennedy explored Indonesia and the power of documentary in effecting change on a local, national and global scale. He shares his story with Tribeca Film.

TFF alumni director Scott Hamilton Kennedy (OT: Our Town, TFF 2002) was nominated this year for an Academy Award for his latest doc, The Garden. A multi-layered story that weaves together communal initiative, green politics, urban sustenance, and democracy for all, The Garden chronicles the triumphs and struggles of a 14-acre (!) community garden in post-1992-riots South Central Los Angeles. As a model for the power of documentary filmmaking, Kennedy was asked to take part in the American Documentary Showcase, sponsored in part by the U.S. State Department. Upon his return, Tribeca Film asked Kennedy to share the story of his initial trip to Indonesia, which took place earlier this summer.

Scott petting elephant at Borobudur Temple. Note the TFF hat!
Photo credit: Lauren Oakes/ADS

Indonesia, May 28-June 14, 2009

On May 28, 2009, I departed from Los Angeles on a two-week journey to Indonesia, where, through the American Documentary Showcase (ADS), sponsored by the International Documentary Association and the U.S. State Department, I was to screen my documentary, The Garden, in front of high schools, universities, NGO’s, diplomats, and the general public. To say I was a little bit excited is a drastic understatement. The biggest question on my mind: Will this multi-layered, environmental-socio-political Los Angeles story play or even make sense in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world?

My traveling companions were producer Lauren Oakes, who was also screening her film Red Gold, and film academic and President-Elect of the University Film and Video Association (the organizer of the ADS), Diane Carson. Our hosts in Indonesia were the wonderful folk at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta: Anne E. Grimes, Jason Rebholz, Michele Cenzer, and their staff.

Lauren Oakes answers a question while Scott Hamilton Kennedy and Jason Rebholz look on.
Photo credit: Diane Carson/ADS

A Perfect First Day

With no screenings planned for my first day in Indonesia (96 degrees and about 92% humidity!), I met up with Indonesian documentary filmmaker Godi Utama, whom I had met almost a year earlier at a screening of The Garden at Silverdocs. We stayed in touch through Facebook (huge in Indonesia), and now, ten months and many, many thousands of miles later he—along with his good friend and producing partner, Rido Triawan—picked me up from the crazy-posh Hotel Borobudur to give me a taste of the real Jakarta. This mostly entailed avoiding tourist traps, eating their favorite street food, enjoying the acrobatic art of scooter riding (family of five on one; a man carrying an entire mini-mart on another), and ending the day drinking Bintang beer and talking politics and pop culture in their apartment.

Minimart-on-a-scooter in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Photo credit: Lauren Oakes/ADS

In terms of politics, they told me about their very intense involvement in the public uprisings that led to the resignation, in 1998, of the unpopular President Suharto. After the celebrations that surrounded the first democratic elections in the country’s history in 2004, Godi and Rido are cautiously optimistic about Indonesia’s future. Things are better, but to overturn corruption and promote equality takes a long time. I told them, while it might sound strange, I feel the same way about the U.S.

On the pop side, they introduced me to some Indonesian music, including a wonderful and hilarious song Lupa-Lupa Ingat (Forget, Remember) by Kuburan Band. (It's catchy—I dare you to get the music video out of your head.) The song also became a great icebreaker when, at post screening Q/As, I would sing a few bars. 

Where We Screened

Our first screening was at the Faculty of Film and Television, at the Jakarta Institute of Art. This is the best film school in Jakarta, and filmmaker Gotot Prakosa (the dean) gave us a tour of their editing facilities (complete with old-school flatbeds and Final Cut Pro) and their extensive film library.

From there we screened across Jakarta (often two screenings in the same day) at several highly respected high schools, the Bentara Budaya Jakarta Cultural Community Center, the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology, and, thanks to Rido, a very lively screening at his alma mater, Atma Jaya.

After Lauren and I ran to Bali for a quick surf weekend, we continued our journey in Balikpapan, with screenings at Balikpapan University and the Balikpapan City Hall, and a fascinating tour of the Yayasan Bornea Orangutan Survival Preserve.

Diane Carson and Eko Nugroho in Dreamlight World Media editing suite.
Photo credit: Lauren Oakes/ADS

From there we moved to our final city: Semarang, where we had a private screening for lecturers from local universities, heads of NGOs, and key environmental activists, and another screening at the Soegijapranata Catholic University. Our free time highlights in Semarang included me running basketball drills with the school’s (co-ed!) varsity team and a fascinating tour of Eko Nugroho’s amazing film, TV and animation studio Dreamlight World Media. Eko is a force of nature—like a combination of Roger Corman and Mark Burnett, but with a social consciousness more in line with Barack Obama than a CEO. Lauren and I got to end our trip with an early morning tour of a true wonder of the world: the enormous Buddhist Temple Borobudur.

Scott and Lauren in front of Borobudur Temple.
Photo credit: Lauren Oakes/ADS

Response to the Film and Post-screening Discussions

Before each screening I gave a short, contextual introduction, but with the younger audiences, I found it helpful to play the film in sections, stopping to give an overview and answer any questions in between.

The response to the film was better than I could have expected. Every screening had something special and worthwhile about it, and that included some small bumps in the road, like the high school where—because of finals—the principal gave me only forty minutes to show my eighty-minute film, and another where, about two-thirds of the way through the film, we lost all the men to Friday prayers. But both of these screenings still had terrific discussions.

Some of the most fascinating dialogue grew out of the audiences' excitement to see a film that represented a more complex portrait of the U.S., beyond the clichés of big Hollywood blockbusters and TV shows they had seen most of their lives. Many thought everyone in the States was rich, lived in big houses with perfect families, and had no reason to fight amongst themselves. They liked seeing portraits of the U.S. that were “more like Indonesia than we thought.”

Scott speaking during the screening of The Garden at Balikpapan University.
Photo credit: Diane Carson/ADS

This led to a larger philosophical question related to The Garden: Can we as human beings rise above our own self interests to treat each other fairly and without bias? Obviously, there is not one clear answer, but most agreed that overcoming ignorance and moving toward respect and understanding are essential steps. And it is also clear that all of this can begin with—and then grow out of—small acts such as thinking globally and acting locally.

As one 15-year-old student pointed out, when discussing why we as humans continue to have so many conflicts, much of the tension is based on ignorance of—or misunderstandings about—other cultures, aka fear of the “other.” And one of the things that film can do is help enlighten each other to the facts that 1) at our core we are much more alike than we are different, and 2) the more we look out for all of us—and all of our planet—the better our world will be.

We discussed documentary storytelling and production, including how to find a balance between the theme of your film and the story as you plan the arc of your production, and how to find the dramatic arc in a documentary film when you don’t have the same control that you have in a fiction narrative.

Scott at Balikpapan University Q&A of The Garden.
Photo credit: Lauren Oakes/ADS

Engaging the Indonesian Community

Lauren and I were often asked to consider returning to make a film in and about Indonesia. And while both of us hope that can happen, what we spent more time discussing was how to grow the independent film community within Indonesia: helping them tell their own stories. I especially pushed what I have come to call the “story by any means necessary” philosophy, which means not allowing the lack of the “right” production quality to keep you from starting a project. If all you have is a still camera—or even your phone—start there and make a 1- to 3-minute piece. Post it on the Web and see if that subject, and you as a filmmaker, can grow from there. 

What is even more difficult than the means of production is finding a story that is worth telling and telling it in as compelling a way as possible. To that end, Lauren, Diane, and I are going to be donating copies of Michael Rabiger’s wonderful Directing the Documentary to all of the places we screened. (I can’t tell you how many nights during a production I return to this “bible” for solace.) We also hope to find some schools and organizations in the U.S. that might want to donate used cameras and other equipment. If anyone has any tips on how to make this happen, please contact me directly.

Students using Flip cameras during Q&As of The Garden.
Photo credit: Lauren Oakes, Diane Carson/ADS

This philosophy even got a little hands-on when I convinced the students to take my little Flip video camera and shoot the Q&A themselves. I shot students asking a question and then gave them the camera to shoot us answering the question. (Note: This is not a product endorsement for FLIP, but if they want to hook a documentarian up, bring it on!)

I ended my trip with one final evening in Jakarta, where I learned about Godi and Rido’s documentary, Time for a Change, Time to Move On, about the famous Indonesian independent rock band, Pure Saturday.

Of course, like any indie doc, they are struggling with funding, so I tried to share some tips: building your email list and website early, creating a fundraising trailer, holding house parties, selling T-shirts and hats, and even pre-selling DVDs. So I made a small “investment” in the film by purchasing 20 pre-sale copies of Time for a Change, Time to Move On. I can’t wait to see it! (For more info on the film, you can find Godi and Rido on Facebook or through email at or

What a Great Trip

What an amazing country. Humble, intelligent, generous, open-minded people with a wonderful, playful sense of humor, who were, almost unanimously, very excited and grateful to be sharing ideas and dialogue.

Before traveling to Indonesia, we were of course well aware of the horrible bombing attacks that occurred in Indonesia between 2002-2005. We were excited to hear that nothing had occurred in almost four years, and while there I never felt that I was in any danger. I was shocked and saddened to hear about the dual bombings in Jakarta on July 17, 2009, and we were happy to hear that all of our new friends were safe from harm. We hope that programs like ADS, if only in the smallest of ways, can help promote understanding, respect, and acceptance to help deter these acts of desperate violence.

Scott, Lauren, and Michele Cenzer pose with the students of UIN Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta.
Photo credit: Diane Carson/ADS

In closing, I will soon have a little video of our trip, and if you want to see that, please become a fan of The Garden on Facebook or join When it's online, we will let you know.

The American Documentary Showcase program is continuing through the rest of the year, and we all hope it will be renewed for next year. Fingers crossed.  Check the website for updates.

Terima kasih Indonesia! (Thank you, Indonesia!)

Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Academy Award-nominated film The Garden is now available on DVD at Mention “Tribeca Film” when you order, and get 10% off your purchase. 


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