Doc Talk: fresh ideas;  portraits of the artist;  prison diary

Doc Talk: fresh ideas; portraits of the artist; prison diary

In 1920, in the midst of poverty and hunger in the poor parts of Amsterdam, the authorities set aside plots of land where children could grow vegetables for their families. Sounds like extra homework, but as it can be seen in “The school garden”(2020), Mark Verkerk’s happy and wonderful documentary about the project a hundred years later, it is anything but.

After the development of such a lively spot over the course of four seasons, the film opens in winter with a gloomy field devoid of vegetation. The ongoing garden is divided into small plots assigned to individual children with their names painted on signs. Then begins the process of tillage, sowing, care and harvesting, with practical lessons, ranging from studying local flora and fauna to preparing meals made from fresh vegetables from the garden, which the children are surprised to find delicious (in most cases). Beautifully photographed, the film features a number of sincerely enthusiastic and industrious young people, their engaging directors and rabbits, who are excused for their poaching because of their educational value and cuteness.

“The School Garden” can be streamed at the Belmont World Film Family Festival (January 14-23), and Verkerk is doing a virtual Q&A from the Netherlands on January 22 at 16.00. Go to bwffamilyfest2022.eventive.org/welcome.

From “A Reckoning in Boston.”Pictures of Lost Nation

Such communal gardens seem to be a good idea to import into this country – and indeed, as seen in James Rutenbecks’ “A showdown in Boston”(2021), the black bus driver Kafi Dixon (also the film’s co-producer) has tried to do so on a vacant lot in the Jamaica Plain. The project has aroused enthusiasm and cooperation in the local community, but opposition from the city and the wealthy builder, as the city promised the empty but mature to gentrification of land.

Dixon is one of the students in a class Rutenbeck teaches on the Clemente course, a Dorchester program that offers free humanities tuition to those with limited resources. Initially, Rutenbeck intended to focus his film on the impact of his class on students’ lives. He quickly realized that it should instead examine the impact of students on him, a privileged white person from a wealthy suburb, as well as the challenges students face from a system designed to exclude them.

Another student that Rutenbeck learns from is Dixon’s co-producer Carl Chandler, 65, who survives on a pension and a disability check in one of the city’s harshest neighborhoods. The learned Chandler offers wise and insightful contributions to classroom discussions of philosophy and history. Even more enlightening is his resilience and wisdom in response to personal challenges.

Despite limited funds, he supports his daughter, who is studying dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. In addition to their dreams and ambitions, he and Dixon share their hardships – procrastination and homelessness and the fatal shots at their loved ones. Such unrest is little known to Rutenbeck, and probably to many viewers, for whom the film is an invaluable educational experience.

“A Reckoning in Boston” will receive its broadcast premiere on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on January 17 at 21.00 and can then be streamed for 30 days via the PBS Video app. Go to www.pbs.org/independentlens/documentaries/a-rekoning-in-boston.

JR (left) and an assistant, Kikito, on scaffolding in Tecate, California, along the border with Mexico. From “Paper and glue.” Prune Nourry / MSNBC Films / Abramorama

Optical illusion

The artist JR proved to be a worthy collaborator of the late Agnès Varda in their 2017 picture road film, “Faces Places”, and he engages in a similar project in his gentle “Paper & glue“(2021.) Starting with the question ‘Can art change the world?’ for that art can.

In a city on the line between the United States and Mexico, he decorates the border wall with a huge, threatening image of an adorable child who one would think would win the hearts of the most inflexible anti-immigrant activists. He arranges a banquet to celebrate the image and ingeniously manages to circumvent restrictions to include guests on both sides of the divide. In a California supermax prison, he recruits inmates in a giant photographic takeover of the prison yard in their own image. And in a Rio de Janeiro favela, he defies narco-bands for joining community activists in reclaiming the streets of the neighborhood with giant images of their faces.

These projects and others serve as an opportunity for JR to tell his own story of how he grew up in a Parisian slum and felt empowered when he discovered graffiti art. From there, he developed his art with oversized portraits and monumental, fleeting frescoes that allow the faceless to show their faces. Funny, self-effacing, and appealing, his clever but ingenious pats win the toughest customers, and the resulting collaborative artworks, witty and epiphany, change the way they see themselves and the way they are seen by others.

“Paper & Glue” can be seen for free at the Bartos Theater at the MIT List Visual Arts Center on January 20 at 18. Go to listart.mit.edu/events-programs/public-program-film-screening-paper-glue.

Sibil and Rob Rich, from “Time”.Amazon Studios

Hard time’

In 1997, betrayed by a friend facing financial ruin, blacks newlyweds Sibil “Fox” and Robert Rich of Shreveport, Miss., Took desperate, disastrous measures. They robbed a bank, were caught and sentenced to prison. Fox escaped after 3½ years, but her husband ended up with 60, leaving Fox with the responsibility of raising their children, keeping the broken family together and struggling with the legal system to get her husband released.

Over the next 21 years, she achieved this and more. She fought energetically for a reform of the criminal justice system and also kept a black-and-white video diary. The latter has been shaped by Garrett Bradley for his groundbreaking, uplifting and enlightening documentary “Time”(2020), whose title refers not only to the time spent in prison, but the time that those waiting outside have endured.

“Time” is available on Blu-Ray and VHS from the Criterion Collection on January 18th. Go to www.criterion.com/films/32170-time.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

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