Documentary maker Scott Hamilton Kennedy has earned critics' paeans and an Oscar nomination by training his camera on two intensely local, only-in-L.A. subjects: a play at a Compton high school and the rise and fall of a South Los Angeles community garden.
But for Kennedy, the roots of these distinctly L.A. stories go back to the U.S. heartland and his youth. That's when his parents dragged him to a Berkeley cinema to see "Breaking Away," the 1979 bildungsroman about four working-class Bloomington, Ind., high school pals testing their mettle against the rich swells.
"It worked on all these levels of being an intimate art film but also a big underdog story," says the 43-year-old Silver Lake resident. "And it sure has stuck with me. My first two documentaries are underdog stories, David and Goliath underdog stories. And I guess I just keep trying to make 'Breaking Away' over and over in different ways."
Kennedy's underdog affinities didn't stop him from presenting all sides of the debate at the heart of "The Garden," a nominee for this year's best documentary Oscar.
Built in hopes of helping heal the wounds of the 1992 riots, the 14-acre community garden at 41st and Alameda streets was reputedly the nation's largest. Formally known as the South Central Farm, it was an oasis in a city severely lacking in green space and a source of both pride and daily sustenance for hundreds of mainly Latino families who worked the land there.
Kennedy picked up the story in winter 2004, after Los Angeles decided to sell the property back to its former owner, developer Ralph Horowitz, who intended to develop the parcel. Kennedy stuck with the story over the next 2 1/2 years, as a seesaw legal battle finally ended with the garden's bulldozing.
In addition to the farmers, the story's remarkable dramatis personae included Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Councilwoman Jan Perry, community activists and Hollywood celebrities, resulting in one of those rare cautionary tales that cuts across all of L.A.'s social strata. Although the garden was uprooted in 2006, the legal and political fight continues over the site, which remains a patch of dirt.
Kennedy, who produced, directed and also took part in shooting and editing, says that when he first learned about the garden "my heart went to the garden, my heart went to the farmers who started this place, because this was a perfect example of 'give a man a fish, teach a man to fish he eats for life.' "
But as he delved deeper into the project, he discovered more resemblance between "The Garden" and "The Wire," the ethically murky, Baltimore-set TV serial. The film explores what some might construe as political backroom deal-making as well as the tensions that occasionally arose among the farmers. "There's good people that do bad things and bad people that do good things," Kennedy says. "And it gave me a lot of confidence and inspiration, especially in the final months of editing, to allow the gray areas into the film."
Kennedy ventures that his movie "kind of gives hope for the system and shows how fragile the system is, that we have to watch our government. We can't just elect somebody and go, 'OK, it's over, thanks, we sure hope that they're the best one.' "
Ricocheting in conversation between self-deprecating humor and earnest, passionate critiques of politics and culture, Kennedy projects youthful enthusiasm, tenacity and openness to life's ironies. Gabriel Tenorio, the film's co-composer with Doug DeAngelis, said he watched the director grow fruitfully during filming.
"As an artist, I saw him become a better and better storyteller and filmmaker," Tenorio says. "You see him trying to work through his own place as a human being in the city and in the world. He really lets what he's working on affect that. He has really evolved as an Angeleno."
His kind of 'Town'
Born in Kentucky and raised in Berkeley and New York City, the son of a civil rights lawyer and a comptroller, Kennedy moved to L A. after making commercial films and music videos. His breakthrough came with "OT: Our Town" (2002), which related the story of how Dominguez High School in Compton pulled together to stage its first play in decades, a production of Thornton Wilder's classic "Our Town."
In true Hollywood fashion, Kennedy got the girl: He married Catherine Borek, the determined teacher who helped lead the student actors. Friends describe the couple as a dynamic duo who feed off each other's creative energy.
"OT" and "The Garden" began as self-financed projects, although "The Garden" secured additional support from Katahdin Productions, a Berkeley-based nonprofit documentary production company. Kennedy is in post-production on his documentary "Fame High," a portrait of the L.A. County School for the Arts, and is developing his first full-length feature, "Up River," about friends traveling up the Los Angeles River from Compton. He admires directors such as Michael Apted and Jonathan Demme who move back and forth among features, documentaries and other projects.
He admits that "it took me a while to sort of settle in and fall in love with the city for what it is and not compare it New York and San Francisco." But he hopes his films may contribute to the outside world seeing his adopted hometown in new ways.
"We're an industry town, obviously, but we're a lot more than trendy clubs and the Hollywood sign and surfers," he says. "It's an enormous community of different cultures and different people, and through that I hope it becomes a universal story. Because when it comes down to it, it's universal struggles and people trying to do right by themselves, by their community, and struggling with power and greed and all of these things that we'll struggle with for the rest of our lives."