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AFI Silver showcases terrific made-in-Maryland documentaries

If you missed Ramona Diaz's "The Learning" and Richard Chisolm's "Cafeteria Man" at the Maryland Film Festival, seize the chance to see them at the AFI Silverdocs festival. If you've seen them already, take my word for it: They're even better the second time around.

"The Learning" is like no other teaching film — it sensitizes you in fresh and unexpected ways to the transactions between instructors and students. Director Ramona Diaz follows four Filipino teachers, recruited by the Baltimore public school system, through their first year teaching Mobtown pupils to their first days back home.

Dorotea, Rhea, Grace and Angel make for a continually surprising quartet, whether they're navigating charmless pockets of Charm City, maintaining complicated family ties halfway across the globe, or cheering themselves up with shopping, sightseeing and self-improvement. When Rhea, Grace and Angel go to work, you see practical intelligence and patient empathy act on quick and slow learners like a tonic.

But Dorotea most boldly embodies the challenges and heartbreak of this movie. No teacher is more beloved in her own country. Yet when Dorotea tells Baltimore adolescents that she's going to treat them as her children, you immediately sense their disbelief.

She aims to win them over with emotion. Too bad the atmosphere is foreign to her in more ways than one. She can't pierce or perhaps comprehend the tough, ornery skepticism of her students. Some mistrust any show of direct feeling. Others view it as a sign of vulnerability. Still others simply don't know how to behave.

Is Dorotea's inability to connect with them her problem — or ours? In the decades since American educators began focusing on instilling kids with self-respect, you may feel that they've neglected to instill, at an early enough age, group civility and respect for others.

"Cafeteria Man," Richard Chisolm's elating movie about good-food guru Tony Geraci, is the opposite of prefab-menu filmmaking. It celebrates Geraci for his profound grasp of what healthful eating means to public school students in Baltimore. It also depicts his impatience and suggests his inability to grapple with bureaucracies to get things done.

Does it focus more on his overall positive force? Absolutely — and why not? "Cafeteria Man" unabashedly embraces Geraci as an unapologetic visionary.

"Do I dare eat a peach?" asked T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock. Under Geraci's influence, schoolchildren who've never touched or tasted one take that dare. Without inflating anything, Chisolm makes it register as a giant leap for urban civilization.

Geraci himself is transporting when he describes one child rubbing a peach against his cheek.

His love of fresh and flavorful food connects to his supple understanding of what matters to a community and an environment. Pupils who protested bad food even before Geraci got there — and who leaped at the chance to advance his agenda — become part of a larger group of kids who learn individual expression and team spirit when they learn to grow and prepare food.

In "Cafeteria Man," Geraci is an inspirational figure — and Chisolm knows just how to frame him. It's a portrait of an artist as a food-service director.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Learning" screens Friday at 10:15 a.m., and Sunday at 4:15 p.m.; "Cafeteria Man": screens Friday at 2:30 p.m., at AFI Silver Theater & Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring.

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