Garden of the Peaceful Dragon tells the life story of Burley Luvell Benford III, an African-American veteran living the last chapter of his life homeless in Hawaii.
When I met Mr. Benford, he told me to call him Shanawo — which means Peaceful Dragon. He was occupying and growing vegetables on an abandoned piece of government beach front property in the small town of Kapaa, Kauai. My vacation rental was beside his garden. One day while shooting the sunrise with my iPhone, Shanawo approached me. The first thing he said was, “You should make a documentary about me.”
Totally uncanny! He had no idea that I had made two feature documentaries. The bells went ringing in my soul, the Universe was urging me to take this assignment. With no knowledge of who this stranger was, I responded “ok” and pointed my iPhone at him.
Four years have passed since that day, and I am so glad I followed that voice and made this film. It is a touching and sensitive portrait of a very deserving man whose life-story otherwise may have been lost to time. Because I started this unexpected project without my usual gear, it took on a unique texture. Filming with the iPhone encouraged extreme intimacy and a risky style. This is not a glossy film, but like the subject himself is unfiltered, full of charm, wit, and wisdom.
Shanawo challenges your world view as he schools you on his life’s many lessons. In the face of adversity, he maintains his happiness and peace of mind. He shares his spirit generously with strangers and friends alike. He never views himself as a victim, and yet the end of his life reveals great injustice. Here is a man who finds himself homeless and ignored by the very system and country he once served to protect. Incredibly though, Shanawo is never bitter. He embraces the beauty and inherent struggle of existence itself and reminds us all of our connectivity to each other and the earth.