Unser Garten Eden (“Our Garden of Eden”, DOC 2010) // Allotments (Interview)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This accessible documentary portrays a working-class allotment complex in Bümplitz, Bern. The director Mano Khalil is himself a member of this multicultural community and succeeds in loosening the gardeners’ tongues. The vast amount of booze they tend to consume probably helped!

National flags fly proudly overhead. The tenants’ migration stories and intercultural commentaries figure largely, but by no means constitute the only thread. Narratives ebb and flow, appropriate for a group held together mainly by geographical location, and always at the whim of the weather.

Allotment owners use their land in very different ways. For the Serbs and Croats in the movie, the plot is a Rakija-saturated social space for ritually returning to the mother country, complete with suckling pig feast. For one depressive Italian, who regrets moving to Switzerland forty years ago, the allotment is a getaway from the country itself.

A variety of Swiss are also shown, from the elderly Jass players whose arched critique of their foreign neighbours comes straight out of Die Schweizermacher, to the allotment veterans, a jovial mixed race couple with a fascinating history.

The one real concession to more conventional narrative is the story of the large barbecue at the allotment pavilion. It’s ordered and built as a compromise to placate the Serbs and Croats who want more space for their suckling pig, the Muslim Kurds who want lamb but can’t use the same skewer as the pork, and the Swiss who want their gardens to stop stinking of meat. Every scene on the barbecue’s troubled road to operation is delightful.

Khalil bookends his film with two moments of togetherness: a hilariously raucous Association Meeting (one of the most un-Swiss Swiss things I’ve ever seen), and a joyful concert celebrating Swiss National Day.

Worth a watch?

Mano Khalil succeeds in capturing the raucous, emotional spirit of the community on film. Two fantastic passages in Unser Garten Eden are worth the price of streaming alone. The early sequence in the Association Meeting is just a joy from start to finish, recording the unadulterated rage of certain members on the topic of fridges not being allowed in winter to keep beer cold. The debaters, including the Italian President, gloriously eschew any attempt at Swiss-style consensus. “He’s Berlosconi! He’s Mussolini!” screams one drunk member.

All the interviews with a middle-aged Polish couple are wonderful in a very different way. As they told the remarkable story of their path to Bern, I fell in love with them as a married couple – they naturally achieved perfect balance in their storytelling, giving each other room and interrupting each other sensitively, and they relentlessly open up on matters of the heart. But their story has a brutal twist in the tail, whose consequences are played out through the rest of the film. It’s moving stuff.

Unser Garten Eden is by some distance the most working-class of the films I’ve seen for this blog, and also the most non-linear. The tableaux of couples and family groups veers off gently into unexpected interludes, and that Italian President stalks through them all, hammering up aggressive notices.

The Ladies Toilets had to be closed for unhygenic vandalism reasons will be costs of about 400 Francs!!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!(for your ASSOCIATION)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If this continues the whole toilet area will be closed
We’ve had enough! The MANAGEMENT

Your guests can do this can of filthy stuff in your toilet at home!!!
Tenants with such guests will no longer be tolerated here.

Report immediately

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners).
Availability: Filmingo, CHF 8 to rent for five days.
Language: High German and Swiss German, and various foreign languages. Various subtitles available, including English!

Swissness Lab Report: Allotments (Interview)

For all those anecdotes, Unser Garten Eden neglects the fundamental allotment activity: gardening. When I reached out to two Swiss allotment owners about their hobby, this was the first thing to come up.

“It’s a real passion,” says Katrin (45), who keeps an allotment just outside of Winterthur. “You really get the urge to go to your garden. The brilliant thing is that you’re doing something and see the result – you plant the seed, see it grow, and at the end you have either a vegetable or the flowers bloom.”

Her passion follows a rich tradition in this former industrial town where the allotments even have their own regional name – Pünt. “My grandmother was one of those old working-class Winterthurinnen,” she explains. “My granddad fought in the war, and was an electrician, and my grandma didn’t even finish high school, she started working in the factory. They didn’t have any money, and the Pünt was a place you could grow food.”

In 2021 the visual artist and yoga teacher may not have the same needs as her gran, but she’s definitely inherited the latter’s wartime spirit of independence. “My goal is not to have to buy vegetables till September,” she told me. “It’s mad that in our society we’re so dependent. We live in a service economy, and you can’t live off services. You live off food.”

Twenty kilometres west of Winterthur, primary school teacher Melina (35) tends to one of fourteen gardens nestled between housing blocks in the middle of Zurich. Most of all, Melina appreciates the flexibility of her hobby. “You can do loads of work, or less,” she told me. “And it’s endless; at the beginning I hardly knew anything, but every year you learn more and more, you can play around forever and make it even better. It’s cool!”

Melina’s allotment complex in Zurich contains two rows of seven gardens, full of life on this early summer’s evening.

When I tell her about the culture-clash battles in Unser Garten Eden, Melina speaks fondly of her urban garden, which functions a lot more harmoniously. “It’s a really good mix,” she told me. “One family only has vegetable beds, I think they eat it all themselves. They’re really nice.” I’ve visited Melina’s allotment a few times now, but not for her vegetables – her guests bring along beer, salads and meat for the barbecue. “If everyone had a party every Saturday night like we do, it wouldn’t work, but everyone uses it differently. For me, both are cool, being alone there gardening, and having people over. It’s like an extension of my apartment.”

Compared to the movie, nationalities are not at the forefront of the Zurich garden space, even if it is typically multicultural for the big city – Melina herself spent her childhood in Hungary, and speaks fondly of her Turkish neighbours. “I don’t really see the clichés confirmed at our place,” she says. “The people here are Stadtzürcher, city folk, and people here have more points of contact – the Swiss aren’t totally focussed on how foreign you are.” A fellow visitor to one of Melina’s barbecues, another Zurich native, pointed out to me that no national flags were flying on poles over our heads.

Not so in Katrin’s larger allotment on the outskirts of Winterthur. I recognized several patterns repeating from Unsere Garten Eden, not least the thematizing of nationality and how differently people of different backgrounds. The Italians in particular seemed to have had a bad reputation in the past, with rumours of them using banned pesticides; other allotment tenants even used to utter the word “mafia”!

And the Swiss? The allotment stereotype I’ve heard repeated most is that of the Bünzli (petit-bourgeois): rule-obsessed tenants, mistrustful of their neighbours, slaving away at work and keeping their their Swiss flag pristine. Unlike Melina in Zürich, Katrin affirms that on first appearances “that stereotype is completely true”, but the reality of her Pünt community is more complex. For example, the older generation of retirees are a lot more social than the younger ones, who are painfully polite.

There are also the “alternative” Swiss like Katrin herself, devoted to organic gardening and not very bothered by Bünzli pedantry. “There are LOT of rules of regulations,” she complains. “For example, the path around your garden, which is common land, has to stay weed-free. You’re in charge of the half of it which borders on to your plot. But I can’t keep up! On the other side of me is a proper Swiss with a Swiss flag, picobello, he’s not got a single little weed. But on my side there are a lot of dandelions.”

But Katrin doesn’t worry that she might be too “un-Swiss”. After all, her relaxed approach also follows a fine tradition: “My grandma had the same problem with weeds, she wasn’t a perfect Bünzli either!

Katrin, hard at work in her Pünt.

One stereotype, though, Katrin must admit to. “We Swiss only come to the garden to work, not to celebrate and have a party.” This was was put to her by the visiting granddaughter of an elderly Italian tenant. “And it’s true! Apart from during corona, I never invite people to my garden to have a barbecue. For me it’s more therapeutic.”

What struck me most in my interviews, as when I watched the film, was the emotional intensity of the allotment. Both Katrin’s therapeutic Pünt and Melina’s hybrid gardening/party zone represent more than a hobby; they belong to, and are an extension of, their owners, and give a lot of love back to those who treat them kindly. And they are a space to get away from the hectic world, nurturing their owners as much as the plants themselves. During the corona pandemic this was a lifesaver for Melina: “In the lockdown I had lots of time and never got bored in the garden. You were allowed outside, I met people here. It was perfect.”

But just when I’m starting to see the allotment as a utopia, Katrin brings me back to earth. “There’s a fox at the moment who keeps shitting in my garden. Well, something’s leaving little piles of crap, so it’s either a fox or cat…”

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