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Doc Talk: garden-fresh ideas; portraits from the artist; prison diary

From "The School Garden."Belmont World Film

In 1920, in the midst of poverty and hunger in the poor sections of Amsterdam, authorities set aside tracts of land where kids could raise vegetables for their families. Sounds like extra homework, but as can be seen in “The School Garden” (2020), Mark Verkerk’s blithe and delightful documentary about the project a hundred years later, it is anything but.

Following the progress of one such lively patch of ground through the course of four seasons, the film opens in winter with a bleak field devoid of vegetation. The garden-in-progress is divided into small parcels assigned to individual children with their names painted on signs. Then begins the process of tilling, seeding, nurturing, and harvesting, with hands-on lessons, ranging from studying local flora and fauna to preparing meals made of vegetables fresh from the garden that the kids are surprised to find delicious (in most cases). Beautifully photographed, the film stars a host of genuinely rapt and industrious youngsters, their engaging instructors, and bunnies excused for their poaching because of their educational value and cuteness.


“The School Garden” can be streamed at the Belmont World Film Family Festival (Jan. 14-23) and Verkerk will be doing a virtual Q&A from the Netherlands on Jan. 22 at 4 p.m. Go to bwffamilyfest2022.eventive.org/welcome.

From "A Reckoning in Boston."Lost Nation Pictures

Such community gardens would seem a great idea to import into this country — and in fact, as is seen in James Rutenbeck’s “A Reckoning in Boston” (2021), Black bus driver Kafi Dixon (also the film’s co-producer) has been attempting to do so in a vacant lot in Jamaica Plain. The project has aroused the enthusiasm and cooperation of the community but opposition from the city and the wealthy developer to whom the city promised the empty but ripe-for-gentrification tract of land.

Dixon is one of the students in a class in the Clemente Course, a Dorchester program offering free instruction in the humanities to those of limited means. Initially, Rutenbeck had intended to focus his film on the impact of the class on the lives of the students. He soon realized that it should instead examine the students’ impact on him, a privileged white person from an affluent suburb, as well as the challenges the students face from a system designed to exclude them.


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

Despite limited means 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 — eviction and homelessness and the fatal shootings of loved ones. Such turmoil is little known to Rutenbeck, and probably to many viewers, for whom the film is an invaluable learning experience.

“A Reckoning in Boston” receives its broadcast premiere on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. and can be streamed for 30 days thereafter via the PBS Video app. Go to www.pbs.org/independentlens/documentaries/a-reckoning-in-boston.

JR (left) and an assistant, Kikito, on scaffolding in Tecate, Calif., along the border with Mexico. From "Paper & Glue." Prune Nourry/MSNBC Films/Abramorama

Trompe l’oeil

The artist JR proved a worthy collaborator for the late Agnès Varda in their 2017 pictorial road movie, “Faces Places,” and he engages in a similar project in his blithe “Paper & Glue” (2021). Starting with the question “Can art change the world?” JR takes on trouble spots around the globe, where he involves oppressed communities in creating the blown-up, immersive photo installations that are his oeuvre and which make a strong case that art can.


In a town on the US-Mexico line he decorates the border wall with a giant, looming image of an adorable child that you’d think would win over the hearts of the most adamant anti-immigrant activists. He sets up a banquet to celebrate the image and ingeniously manages to work around restrictions to include guests on both sides of the divide. At a California supermax prison he recruits the inmates in a giant photographic take-over of the prison yard in their own image. And in a Rio de Janeiro favela he braves narco gangs to join community activists in reclaiming neighborhood streets with giant pictures of their faces.

These projects and others serve as an opportunity for JR to tell his own story, about how he grew up in a Parisian slum and felt empowered when he discovered graffiti art. From that he developed his art of oversize portraits and monumental, ephemeral frescoes that allow the faceless to show their faces. Funny, self-effacing, and appealing, his clever but ingenuous patter wins over the toughest customers and the resulting collaborative artworks, witty and epiphanic, 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 Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. 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, faced with financial ruin, Black newlyweds Sibil “Fox” and Robert Rich of Shreveport, Miss., took desperate, disastrous measures. They robbed a bank, were caught, and sentenced to prison. Fox got out after 3½ years, but her husband ended up with 60, leaving Fox with the responsibility of raising their children, holding together the broken family, and struggling with the legal system to get her husband released.

Over the next 21 years she achieved this and more. She energetically campaigned for criminal justice reform and also kept a black-and-white video diary. The latter has been shaped by Garrett Bradley into his wrenching, uplifting, and illuminating documentary “Time” (2020), the title of which refers not just to time served in prison but the passage of time endured by those who wait outside.

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

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