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Doc Talk: The kids are all right

Mildred the Lunch Lady, center, in "The Reel Queens of Pittsburgh."Boston International Kids Film Festival

The Boston International Kids Film Festival (Nov. 20-22) showcases many fine documentaries, including several shorts made with impressive artfulness and professionalism by kids themselves. These appear in film block #5, Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. In them the young filmmakers demonstrate a keen awareness of and commitment to some of the pressing issues of the day and show that the future of documentary filmmaking, and the world, is in good hands.

“I Wish My Education Taught Me . . .,” by kids from San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point Center for Arts and Technology Academy, interviews six students, ages 13-16. Stirred by current events involving civil rights and democratic principles, they complain about omissions and inaccuracies in their history curriculum. You can’t fool these kids about American exceptionalism when they have access to Google to uncover the truth.


Young filmmakers Samantha Campbell, Emma Greally, and Kate Parker’s short “DACAmented” takes up the case of Kiara Lopez-Cabanillas, who came to the United States illegally with her mother when she was a child. Now she is an adult, college educated, fully integrated into society, and a hard-working taxpayer who had been given a chance to earn citizenship under the DACA program. But that hope is now thrown into doubt given the efforts of the Trump administration to eliminate the program and the likelihood of the Supreme Court ruling against the program in an upcoming case.

The COVID-19 pandemic takes an inordinate toll on minorities and the poor, and Aditya Desai’s “Compassion for Change” puts a human face on the statistics. She interviews victims, activists, and scientists in New York City about the impact of the virus on the Latino population, many of them essential workers who suffer the most because they need to work, lack health care, and in some cases fear arrest by immigration authorities if they seek medical treatment.


More lighthearted, though no less serious, “The Reel Queens of Pittsburgh” by queer filmmakers Doria Focareta and Violet Wright celebrates the buoyant spirit of that city’s drag community, focusing on the colorful, cozy Blue Moon Bar, where many of the performers interviewed first got their start. It is also home to gruff, gravel-voiced Mildred the Lunch Lady who puts the BLT in LGBTQ+.

The adult offerings aren’t bad either. Gloucester’s Kim Smith offers “Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly” (Nov. 21 at noon). Visually gorgeous and with poetic voice-over narration, it shows not only the stunning annual migration of millions of the graceful orange-and-black-winged creatures to Mexico but also is filled with other remarkable facts and images. Such as the beautiful weirdness of the Monarch caterpillar, with antennae on both ends and whose white, yellow, and black pattern of coloration increases in intensity and complexity as it grows. Or the bizarre gymnastics involved in setting up its final metamorphosis and the gemlike ethereality of the resulting chrysalis. The film evokes the kind of wonder that makes you feel like a child again.

Go to bikff.org/2020-films.

Greta Thunberg in "I Am Greta."Courtesy of Hulu/Associated Press

The power of one

As seen in the Boston International Kids Film Festival documentaries, young people are already taking on dire problems facing us all. Kids like the title activist in Nathan Grossman’s “I Am Greta.”

But don’t think Greta Thunberg is pleased that she and the rest of her generation are stuck with the responsibility. “This is all wrong!” she says, addressing the United Nations on climate change. “I shouldn’t be up here! I should be in school! You come to us young people for hope — how dare you!”


Thunberg has been out of school since August 2018 when — alone, forlorn, and waiflike — the 15-year-old sat in front of the Swedish parliament with a handmade sign declaring that she was on strike. Since then she has amassed an army of hundreds of thousands who have joined her in demonstrations around the world.

Grossman caught up with her at her initial protest, thinking the story might be good for a short subject. The project grew, and he accompanied her as she developed the movement with wry, righteous wrath. He was with her as she crossed the Atlantic in a wave-tossed sailing vessel en route to her appearance at the UN and as she read with rueful amusement the hateful messages directed at her online by her alleged elders. It’s not easy changing the world, and it’s about time some of the adults in the room started pitching in.

“I Am Greta” can be seen on Hulu beginning Nov. 13.

Go to hulu.tv/2JQT20N.

Joy Buolamwini in "Coded Bias."7th Empire Media

Color coded

One of the hits of this year’s GlobeDocs Festival and a contender for best documentary this awards season, Shalini Kantayya’s “Coded Bias” tells the story of one of those chance discoveries that reveal a profound truth — in this case the prejudice exhibited within artificial intelligence against non-whites and women.


Joy Buolamwini, a Black MIT Media Lab researcher, was investigating facial-recognition software when she noticed something odd — the programs didn’t acknowledge her face until she put on a white mask. Further investigation revealed that AI was guilty of virtual racial and gender profiling.

Did this have anything to do with the fact that the vast majority of those running the AI industry are white men? Could it be that their unconscious biases are incorporated into the algorithms that determine our lives? Could the dystopian future shown in the clips from Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002) included in the film be the world we are living in now?

These are questions that no doubt will be raised when the film is discussed in a virtual Q&A Nov. 19 at 8:30 p.m. as part of the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Science on Screen series. Participants include Kantayya, Buolamwini, and CNN commentator Van Jones, who will moderate. Go to youtube.com/thecoolidge. It will then be available for viewing for at least two weeks.

“Coded Bias” is available for streaming at the Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room beginning Nov. 18.

Go to coolidge.org/films/coded-bias.

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