The Grove: A Fight to Remember begins with, pretty much ends with, and is interspersed with tourists in Golden Gate Park looking for the Japanese tea garden. This device is fairly indicative of director Andy Abrahams Wilson’s indirect, non-inflammatory approach to a topic brimming to full with passionate, volatile emotions: should an art installation augment The Grove, the nations first national memorial dedicated to the victims of AIDS?
The argument of those in favor of the art installation, a project that won an international competition, is underscored by the visitors who stumble unawares into the grove: a “national” memorial ought to be a draw to those outside of the community and should help communicate what is being memorialized to its visitors. Several proponents of the art installation express fears that subsequent generations may not understand the scope of devastation and loss AIDS visited upon the first generation to know it, and that a well landscaped community garden may, in its way, undercut the severity of the tragedy when looked at in comparison to other, more visited memorials. (Several participants in the film cite the work of the Vietnam War Memorial in helping to enhance its location, and I wished someone in the film would have acknowledged that this work was also controversial when initially proposed.)
Several opponents to the winning project complain that its bleak, shocking tone is at odds with the grove’s function of providing a sense of peace and natural beauty for those whose lives have already been touched by death. The Grove, they argue, should be first a place of comfort for those who made it and only second an attraction or marker for those who wish to visit.
It is to Wilson’s credit that he gives both sides their say and lets both sides acknowledge the validity of the opposing side. Much like Windfall, which also played at the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, The Grove is surprisingly, perhaps refreshingly optimistic about the democratic process, illustrating how communities (political and social) divided by passionate disagreement can still work with one another towards resolution.
The one complaint I had with the film is that it took a little too long to get to its main conflict, lingering on the back story of one couple to tell the emotional story of AIDS in what Wilson conceded in the Q&A session was intended to be a “post-AIDS” film. That part of the story is necessary in order to understand the deep personal connection that the original founders have with The Grove and the sense of ownership and protectiveness they feel over it. Its emphasis does, however, mean the playing out of the controversy is a bit rushed, leaving some key questions unanswered: Who was on the competition committee and how much contact, if any, did they have with board? Whose idea was it to make The Grove a national memorial to begin with? (Did the board approach Nancy Pelosi to enter the bill?) Why (and when) did a key member who was opposed to the installation quit the board rather than use his position to influence the process towards an outcome he thought best? Why did some of the board members appear to care more about the fact that the winning design’s artists were not local than they did about the design itself?
Those questions aside, The Grove: A Fight to Remember does a very nice job at using the controversy to raise and examine deeper philosophical issues–such as what is the ultimate purpose of a memorial–rather than simply dwelling on and documenting the controversy itself.