Upbeat, zippy and thoroughly enjoyable, “Martha: A Picture Story,” available on Video on Demand, celebrates photographer Martha Cooper and her decades-long love affair with graffiti and street art.
Like the documentary “Bill Cunningham New York,” this first full-length doc from Australian director Selina Miles contains a wonderful protagonist in its photographer subject — an artist of integrity known for taking pictures of human self-expression on the streets of New York City.
Cooper is associated foremost with her photographs of graffiti and subway art, and with helping to give this art legitimacy.
She credits her subjects for making her pictures effective. At the same time, as admirers note, it is Cooper who selects and frames her subjects, and she presents them with striking humanity
An opening passage, featuring 2018 footage, contains the action and suspense of a thriller: “Somewhere in Germany,” the 70-something Cooper, clad in black and carrying camera gear, stealthily makes her way through a dark train yard with the 1UP crew. She takes pictures of the graffitists as they rush into a subway station and, with paint-filled fire extinguishers, spray giant smiley faces on the wall before vacating the site, pronto.
The act resembles the methods Cooper employed during the 1970s and 1980s, and she still feels the thrill.
Combining news and artist footage, home movies and interviews with graffiti “writers” and two delightfully reminiscing friends of Cooper, Miles journeys through Cooper’s career: Peace Corps service in Thailand; a National Geographic internship (the magazine’s “first girl intern”); photographing Japan’s underground tattooing scene.
As a staff photographer for the New York Post, Cooper shot pictures of the city’s poorer neighborhoods during the dark 1970s.
Her themes included “people rising above their environment” and outsider communities making New York their own.
With her camera, Cooper captured the beginnings of hip hop and took photos of kids breakdancing.
The graffiti scene, whose “writers” used walls as canvases and wrote their names hugely and elaborately, fascinated Cooper.
Documenting street art, which was vilified as an unsightly manifestation of vandalism at the time, Cooper demonstrated that it, in fact, involved imagination, skill, beauty and other qualities connected with art.
Her images of subway paintings, painted in stations and on trains, which appear in her 1984 book, “Subway Art” (co-created with Henry Chalfant), have inspired young street artists and made Cooper legendary in that community.
Her photographs and committed interest in street art have led to lasting friendships with artists and granted her access to their projects.
Miles has made a celebratory, not a penetrating, profile of Cooper, who comes across as virtually flawless in the film.
But this is the sort of documentary Cooper has earned: a joyful, dynamic, fond appreciation.
Graffiti detractors still exist, of course. In a head-shaker passage, a prominent gallerist tells Cooper that pictures containing smiley faces don’t qualify as serious art.
As for her legacy, Cooper expresses little concern. (“I’ll be dead,” she says.) She doubts that Google will honor her with a doodle, she says.
Martha: A Picture Story
With: Martha Cooper, Sally Levin, Susan Welchman, Dondi
Directed by: Selina Miles
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
“Groomed” looks at how child sex abusers, via the process known as grooming, hook their victims, win their trust, and keep them silent.
In this debut feature, documentarian Gwen van de Pas entwines interviews — with therapists, child-welfare experts, abuse survivors and a convicted offender — with her personal journey.
Recalling her Netherlands childhood, van de Pas details how, at age 12 and 13, she was abused by her swimming coach, who presented himself as a caring adult interested in her welfare.
In what van de Pas now sees as a case of grooming (a term that child-welfare professionals say they use multiple times daily), the man chose her as prey, sensing her vulnerability (classmates bullied her). Writing her letters and buying her gifts, he made her believe she was special in his eyes.
In other displays of grooming, the offender won the trust of van de Pas’ family and convinced van de Pas that their increasingly physical relationship was something she desired. For two decades, she believed he truly cared for her and posed no danger to others.
The film follows her progress from those long-held thoughts to more accurate realizations, which van de Pas reaches by confronting her past. This includes a difficult visit to her childhood home.
In a particularly affecting passage, the now San Francisco-based van de Pas discusses her childhood abuse with her parents for only the second time in 20 years. She reads letters her abuser sent her, which now sicken her.
Van de Pas structures her film efficiently, creating, despite the dark topics, a highly watchable mix of facts and figures and trauma and healing. This documentary is both an informative overview of the grooming practice and a brave first-person story bound to resonate with many.
“Groomed” debuts on Discovery+ on March 19.
With: Gwen van de Pas
Directed by: Gwen van de Pas
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes