doc talk | peter keough

Documentary screenings go behind bars and inside the artist’s mind

David Hockney in “David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts.”
David Hockney in “David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts.”Jean-Pierre Goncalves de Lima/Exhibition on Screen/Seventh Art Productions

What could better illustrate the disparity between the privileged rich and the disenfranchised poor than a meeting between Dartmouth College undergraduates and prison inmates? And what better way to help bring about the awareness and empathy necessary to bridge that divide?

In Signe Taylor’s documentary “It’s Criminal,”  female students from a class at the Ivy League school collaborate with women incarcerated at a New Hampshire correctional facility to put on a show to dramatize the latter’s lives. As in Jarius McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s documentary “The Work,” in which regular people participate with convicts in an awareness and healing seminar, things don’t go smoothly at first. 

When asked in an exercise to list things she loves and hates, one Dartmouth student responds, “I love kittens and hate sleeping with people who snore.” An inmate, answering the same question, says, “I love my children and hate the pain inside me.” Another inmate describes her first impression of one of the students: “I hated her the minute I saw her. She was just what I thought a Dartmouth girl would look like. Blond, pretty teeth, and pearl earrings.” As for the students themselves, the most common word they use to describe their experience at the beginning is “uncomfortable.”


But the program, developed and run by faculty members Pati Hernandez and Ivy Schweitzer, slowly and painfully succeeds in developing trust and candor. The inmates learn that the students, despite their seeming privilege (one student, the daughter of Burmese immigrants, has in fact not had it so easy), can elude stereotyping and are worthy of their trust. And the students, hearing the inmates’ stories of abuse, injustice, desperation, and addiction, are exposed to a world of hardship and diminished expectations that they might not otherwise have imagined. It is not easy, but in the end the show does go on, and for some the results are life-changing.

“It's Criminal” screens free, as part of the monthly GlobeDocs series, on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. The film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Taylor, Schweitzer, and two formerly incarcerated women featured in the film, moderated by Globe film editor Janice Page.

Museum piece

As British art historian Tim Marlow states at the beginning of Phil Grabsky’s documentary “David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts,” the film’s subject may be the most popular living painter in Britain, if not the world. Though some critics might think that such popularity does not necessarily translate into greatness or genius, the two blockbuster Hockney exhibitions shown here, along with illuminating interviews with the artist, make a strong case otherwise.

The works in these shows impress with their vivid, fauvist colors, as well as their inventiveness, size, and multiplicity. In 2012, the Royal Academy of Arts hosted “A Bigger Picture,” which featured Hockney’s landscapes of his native Yorkshire. Some of these paintings are huge, consisting of multiple canvases, with one covering an entire gallery wall, and they are all done in an eye-catching style somewhere between Van Gogh and Peter Max.


Hockney switches genres in the 2016 show “82 Portraits and 1 Still Life,” a marathon-like series of portraits of close friends, each painted within only three days. Barely interrupting the rows of identically sized paintings is a lone picture of fruit on a periwinkle-blue bench.

As the Guardian film critic Jonathan Jones points out, some of these paintings pale in comparison to Hockney’s earlier masterpieces. But, Hockney, 80, still demonstrates a passion, curiosity, and eagerness to try new things. It’s an artistic approach that is as dazzling as his Matisse-like palette.

“David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts” can be seen through March 18 as part of the Exhibition on Screen series at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Cinema not so verite

Agnès Varda’s 1981 fictionalized essay/docu-drama “Documenteur” (the title is a pun on the French words for documentary — documentaire — and liar — menteur) opens with a dazzling image: a mother and son climb out of a battered sedan and play with a soccer ball in front of an enormous mural of an aquatic apocalypse. The two are Emilie (Sabine Mamou) and Martin (Varda’s son Matthieu Demy) and they are adrift in Los Angeles after Emilie has broken up with Martin’s father. 

Their situation mirrors that of Varda herself, who was in Los Angeles because an offer to make a Hollywood film fell through. She had also temporarily split with her husband, the French auteur Jacques Demy. Unlike Emilie, however, Varda did not fill her downtime working as a typist or scrambling to find a place to live in grubbily picturesque Venice Beach. Instead, she made this film and the documentary “Mur Murs” (1980) — which is about Los Angeles frescoes, and features the one that opens “Documenteur.” To add to this intertextuality and self-referentiality, Mamou not only plays Emilie, but also edited both films and, as is suggested in a later scene, the person Emilie works for might be Varda herself.


As beguiling as these cinematic riddles might be, “Documenteur” can also be appreciated as a glimpse into Varda’s preoccupations and motifs. In it, she celebrates life on the margins, the sublimity of ordinary faces, and the inexhaustible oddities of life, as she would in later films such as “The Gleaners and I” (2000) and her Oscar-nominated “Faces Places.”

“Documenteur” screens Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge.

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