El Sistema: Music to Change Life
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'I have nothing but admiration for Jose Antonio Abreau's commitment (in both a cultural and a social context). What he has achieved with El Sistema and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is simply unique in the world.' -- Claudio Abbado
'The future of classical music lies in Venezuela.' -- Sir Simon Rattle
Here is our official review of the new movie "El Sistema." Please see our forum to connect with others who are interested in this ground-breaking idea.
"El Sistema cries out for music in a time when music programs are getting cut and government dollars are dwindling. Largely funded by the government of Venezuela, this nation-wide music education program is teaching over 250,000 youth not only how to play instruments, but also how to play a positive role in society. Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier do a fantastic job bringing the real struggle of Venezuelan citizens to life - including several interviews with people who are scared each day for their own lives and the lives of their children. It is in just this kind of intense environment that El Sistema has thrived! José Antonio Abreu, the founder of el Sistema, makes frequent appearance in the film and it is clear that his perseverance has inspired those around him to continue to promote and sustain el Sistema for years to come. The profound impact of el Sistema has given thousands of Venezuelan children a new chance at living. Musical expression has given them a way to create a bright future in a country where that future once seemed questionable." -- Music Education for All, October 30, 2009
I don't think it will come as much of a surprise to any of you in the United States who may be reading this review and who have children in the public school system when I say that Arts education has suffered horribly over the past couple of decades. When I was growing up (admittedly a long, long time ago, as my own sons never hesitate to remind me), it was simply de rigeur for every school to have a full assortment of Arts classes available to students, whether that be Drama, Art (as in painting) or Music. I know from personal experience with my own kids that that tradition has woefully fallen by the wayside here in the States, especially with regard to Music, which is strangely now often perceived as something not especially relevant to preparing today's youth for the challenges of tomorrow. Despite longstanding clinical studies which have proven that musical education ups most students' antes with regard to any number of other disciplines (notably mathematics), music education simply seems to be an afterthought nowadays. I know for example that at the elementary school both of my sons attended the only way we were able to maintain a full time music teacher (an absolute rarity in my neck of the woods) was with funding provided by the school's private foundation, which exists off of the goodwill of the mostly well to do parents, who contribute generously in order to make sure their children receive well rounded educations. Even with that parental support, we are sadly witnessing a generation (my kids included, I"ll admit it) who are just as likely to want to "play" an instrument in "Guitar Hero" as they are to actually put the time and effort into actually learning about music and mastering a real instrument.
It therefore came as something of a rude awakening, if an appreciated one nonetheless, to be introduced to similar problems, at least in terms of music education if not Xbox 360, in Venezuela, a country of at times overwhelming poverty and teeming barrios which infest the hillsides of Caracas like Rube Goldberg shanty towns. The difference between, say, the United States and Venezuela is the incredible effort of José Antonio Abreu, an amateur musician who decades ago formed an organization nicknamed El Sistema (The System), a sort of boarding school for mostly low income kids where the driving force behind all education is music. The fact that the organization was originally named Social Action for Music and then ultimately became Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, (AKA Fesnojiv), (National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela), may indicate to some politically paranoid people that the group may be hiding some sort of Marxist Socialist protocol in its motives (especially those who tend to demonize Venezuela's Hugo Chavez), but from the evidence given in this fascinating and often deeply moving documentary, that's simply not the case. Though this is indeed a government funded program, and there is a sort of worker bee ethos which runs through both the teachers' methods and the students' daily struggles, there's simply too much good happening here to get hung up on the political backstory.
It's almost mind boggling to realize that over 250,000 children are currently having their lives changed by El Sistema. The documentary of course focuses on a few, and their stories can be both inspiring and heartbreaking. A little boy is fearful to venture out of his slum apartment due to frequent gang shootings. A young girl dreams of a life where a professional music career can be her pathway out of what seems like an eternally vicious cycle of poverty which her family has endured for generations. Abreu makes no bones about the social work aspect of El Sistema. It's the fact that his particular genius was in providing an education in classical music to help these kids that the truly incredible aspects of El Sistema take flight. Watching a troupe of kids' faces light up as they play even "paper instruments" (the school doesn't yet have real instruments for some of the younger kids) is a study in the human spirit's ability to rise above the hand fate has dealt it. It's also a testament to Abreu's vision, which has survived and even prospered under a hugely disparate array of different political powers, from ultra conservative to the neo-leftist regime of Chavez. Amazingly the government's support of El Sistema has been one of the constants in an otherwise tumultuous political landscape.
Aside from the personal stories of the kids and segments showing them being taught, this documentary also provides some viscerally exciting concert sequences with the older graduates of El Sistema who make up the internationally lauded Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Under the direction of the apparently irrepressible Gustavo Dudamel, these may be young performers, but they are obviously well rehearsed and with a joy and energy that frankly easily overcomes any technical limitations some of them may be experiencing this early in their careers. Dudamel is an amazingly vigorous conductor and one who communicates his passion to his charges almost by osmosis. Watching these young masters, all having been schooled (if not indoctrinated) by the teachings of El Sistema, play with such excitement and commitment gives a music lover like me hope that the vagaries of Guitar Hero may indeed just be a passing fancy. El Sistema is creating music that will last, and this documentary is an unusually compelling look at a very unique program which is enriching the lives of countless thousands.
El Sistema arrives from EuroArts with a very sharp 1080p AVC encoded transfer that offers brilliant color and excellent detail. This is an unusually broad based documentary with, for example, the gleaming skyscrapers of Caracas (as well as its heartbreaking barrios) on a broad scale offering some at times jaw dropping depth of field. On the other hand, the documentary gets literally up close and personal with several children, and fine detail is so crystal clear the viewer can virtually count the individual pores on any given child's face. Caracas is an unusually colorful city, and this Blu-ray offers a gorgeously saturated palette of multi-colored stucco buildings and some intricately woven fabrics which various people wear. Skin tones are lifelike and the entire color spectrum is extremely well represented throughout the documentary. El Sistema is a very fine looking documentary indeed, with no artifacting of any import to report.
Luckily the two audio options provide the same excellence as the image quality. The DTS HD-MA 5.1 is excellently directional, though perhaps strangely that's most evident in some of the smaller scale musical moments, as when two tyro brass players clearly emanate from the left channel. The full orchestral moments, though unfortunately as brief as they are, provide a robust soundfield that is absolutely accurate and offers brilliant range in both frequency and dynamics. All of this said, El Sistema is really not a music concert documentary by any stretch of the imagination. Long sequences are nothing other than people talking, and the 5.1 mix offers that dialogue crisply and cleanly front and center, with easy to read subtitles. Perhaps by virtue of the very fact that this isn't a music performance documentary per se, the uncompressed PCM 2.0 folddown actually does a completely excellent job and few will find anything to complain about with its narrower sound field.
An 8:18 minute featurette shows the audtions for the National Youth Symphony of Venezuela. The insert booklet also provides an informative essay about Abreu, his background and his vision, as well as some supplementary information about El Sistema.
El Sistema touched me perhaps more deeply than any documentary in recent memory. This may well be because I personally value music education so highly. But really I think the message of this film is much more universal. People of all backgrounds and interests are confronted by challenges virtually every day of their lives, and all need some semblance of hope to cling to in order to persevere. It's testament to Abreu's genius that while he may have given these exceptional young people a very singular focus for their hope, he has really shown the world the potential for hope itself by showing that hope is even possible in such desperate and depressing circumstances. -- Blu-ray.com, Jeffrey Kauffmann, November 27, 2009
I reported as abusive, the comment made by an indignant person who has no belief of the importance of this film. Paul Smaczny very profitable sent me a copy of the DVD months ago, as here in Mexico, we're starting the program using the El Sistema model. Rather than give a review, I can only run those who may have already seen Tocar y Luchar, have heard or seen Gustavo Dudamel, or have read about the genius of José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, to prefer and believe this most salubrious documentary. This model for the entire planet has been captured poetically and beautifully by EuroArts' Maria Stodmeier and Paul Smaczny, already a substantial master at producing classical music videos. But the genuine stars are the children, who snarl like feeble souls...who gawk the importance of being a member of an orchestra as life's most spiritual lesson. That the project has rescued thousands of underprivileged children from a hopeless life, has produced Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, to mention only a few of many talented musicians, utterly discounts any negativity those with an axe to grind might have. I have showed this documentary to many friends, and the reaction has been the same: when and where can we acquire it? Now you can...and order it NOW, before it gets sold out. The world is watching. I certainly can't comment from the `inside' as customer reviewer Linda McDougall does -- read her review! -- But I wanted to add my unreserved enthusiasm for this DVD. Ever since conductor Gustavo Dudamel exploded onto the international classical music scene there has been mounting curiosity and interest about El Sistema and its founder José Antonio Abreu. This documentary, lovingly made by one of the best music documentarians, Paul Smaczny, and his partner Maria Stodtmeier, shows us from the ground up how El Sistema works. It takes us inside the homes, rehearsal rooms and the very lives of the children who are eager in learning to play music via the program and mostly in their maintain words shows us what a grand force the program is. There are many clips of Abreu explaining his concepts about the importance of music in the lives of the children, not impartial for the explicit purpose of learning to play an instrument but also for how it teaches cooperation and discipline. The children themselves are grand ambassadors for the program because we can sight how it alters their lives in certain ways. I enthusiastically recommend the DVD to anyone who loves classical music, to anyone who despairs about the future of classical music, and to anyone who might some day have input themselves into the similar programs that are now popping up all over the world. Running time: 100minutes, plus a 9min bonus about auditioning for the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra; Format NSC 16:9; Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1; Documentary is in Spanish with subtitles in English, German, French and Spanish; Situation Code: 0 (worldwide) -- Philippine Blog Central, Scott Morrison, December 2009
In Fanfare 32:4 I reviewed a DG DVD entitled "The Promise of Music," dealing with the Sistema, a vast music education program based in Caracas, and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra associated with it. This is another documentary on the subject, made for NHK by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier. The earlier documentary concentrated on the orchestra, filling out the background and following the progress of some of its members (including that of the conductor Gustavo Dudamel), whereas this one deals more with the lower echelons of the sistema. We hear much more this time from the founding father of this enterprise, José Antonio Abreu, while we see and hear less of Dudamel. The physical dangers of the locale are more strongly emphasized here: one girl laments the fact that she missed her school audition as a cellist because she was accidentally shot in the leg on the way to the audition. The pain was minor compared to the disappointment, she laments. (She did get in eventually.) It is a fascinating glimpse into a world where classical music can literally be a life-saving experience. Nevertheless, Fanfare readers may be happier with the DG release, as it is more concerned with music, covering the orchestra's tour to Germany (where they play Beethoven's Seventh in Bonn) and culminating in complete performances of their exciting Latin American bon-bons. -- Fanfare, Phillip Scott, Mar-Apr 2010
Overtly celebratory productions are, in a sense, quite beyond criticism. They are generally of interest only to people who already know what is being celebrated, and those people need not be told if the person or event is wonderful (they believe that already) and will not listen if things seem to fall short (they will not believe that to be possible). So releases like these two inevitably have the flavor of "preaching to the converted," a fact that their sheer exuberance underlines. This in no way means they are uninteresting or poorly produced: both the film El Sistema and the two-CD Richard Hickox set contain a great deal of worthy material. But too much adulation comes to seem as if those delivering it are trying a little too hard - not that fans of El Sistema or Hickox would ever feel that way.
The Paul Smaczny/Maria Stodtmeier film is essentially an affirmation of a well-conceived program that has produced one international musical superstar - conductor Gustavo Dudamel - and has pulled hundreds of thousands of poor children into choirs and orchestras. This is El Sistema, brainchild of Venezuelan musician/politician José Antonio Abreu; and the documentary follows a number of wonderful stories (including Dudamel's) in showing how the music-education program has brought many, many children out of the violence and hopelessness of the barrios and into a world filled with hope and opportunity. It is almost too uplifting for words - although there are plenty of words here, including some from Abreu himself. But there is a problem: El Sistema is essentially a political creation, and as such is now firmly under the control of Venezuelan caudillo and self-proclaimed "Bolivarian revolutionary" Hugo Chávez. Filmmakers get no access to El Sistema or to anything else in Venezuela without the approval of Chávez, and Chávez is not known for approving in-depth studies that show him, his policies or his nation in an unfavorable light. This situation throws something of a pall over El Sistema, which does not address its dependency on Chávez at all and remains focused on heartwarming stories. And the stories are heartwarming, with children as young as age two taken off the "mean streets" of the nation, taught the basics of music, provided with instruments and lessons in the hundreds of núcleos throughout the community, and given the chance to become part of an ensemble. The youngsters make music six days a week for four hours a day, and the film emphasizes that this time gives them respite from otherwise difficult lives, providing safety and a supportive environment. But consider: if this were occurring in, say, Fascist Italy or Communist Romania, questions would surely be raised about regimentation, about using the approach to generate support for the government and specifically for its leader, about the whole arrangement being a method of control and a tool for solidifying power. These are not questions that are present in El Sistema, and perhaps they could not have been asked while still allowing the filmmakers such extensive access to the program and its participants. Yet one wonders, in listening to Dudamel and others speak of the marvels of El Sistema, how much freedom they have to say anything less than adulatory, and how free the filmmakers would have been to include criticism if it had been given. This is not to take anything away from El Sistema as a film (it is a well-made documentary), from the music education it chronicles (which has clearly had remarkable successes), or from Abreu himself (who comes across as a dedicated and farsighted man). But hagiography, whether of a person or of a system, is always (almost by definition) overdone. In today's Venezuela, it seems particularly out of place. -- Infodad.com, November 5, 2009
Since the 1980s, there has been a naïve idea that you can do a music project involving children and that will change the world. We have seen that recently with unimpressive results, no matter how sincere. The only way to bring children and music together is through teaching the art and the new Paul Smaczy/Maria Stootmeier documentary El Sistema (2007) shows such a program in a place you'd least suspect: Caracas, Venezuela.
Yes, the home of Hugo Chavez (made infamous by many in the U.S. media, though he is rarely dealt with here) has classical music art programs gong for it the U.S. does not. This program focuses on several of the child participants and we see one early on in a not-so-safe neighborhood discussing how bad violence is. I believe it. However, there is an unintended flipside that says because he listens to Classical, he should not have to be in poverty as if someone who does not should be shot. The makers are just showing how much is being lost when the program does not exist, but it is still an item worth bringing up. This runs 100 minutes and is well done.
The 1080i 1.78 X 1 digital High Definition image is a little soft, but has good color and the shooting is decent throughout. The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) lossless 5.1 mix shows the limits of the recoding, especially when music is being played and I was surprised a documentary had such a lossless soundtrack, but it is still better than the PCM 2.0 Stereo also included. Just don't expect the best sound found on EuroArts' best Blu-rays. Extras include a booklet inside the Blu-ray case, four trailers for other EuroArts Blu-ray releases and a making-of featurette. -- Fulvue Drive-in, Nicholas Sheffo, November 2009
The Bottom Line Every once in a while you come across a film that is inspiring and thought-provoking; this is one of those films. Pros:
* Very inspiring documentary
* Contains bonus feature (Audition for the National Children's Orchestra of Venezuela)
* English subtitle Cons:
* None From Paul Smaczny, the director of the 2006 International Emmy Award winning film "Knowledge is the Beginning," comes this documentary about El Sistema El Sistema is a revolutionary music education program founded over 30 years ago in Venezuela by Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu. The film opens with images of young children in a classroom innocently holding musical instruments. However, the moment they start playing, these children are transformed; we see the fire in their eyes and hear the passion in their playing. I had to remind myself that I'm actually watching children - kids playing like adults. As the movie continues, we get to know the men and women behind El Sistema; from the vision of its founders, to the teachers who tirelessly work in centers scattered across Venezuela. Most important, we get to know the heart of El Sistema - the children. The film follows three kids for a year; children like Roderyk Alvarado who lives in a barrio in Caracas amidst poverty, gangs, guns and drugs. We learn that what El Sistema does is reach out and bring hope to underprivileged children and their families through the power of music. Students are encouraged to attend centers in their areas in order to learn the basics. Parents and guardians show support by attending performances and by making sure that their kids come to class regularly. Currently, they have more than 180 centers in Venezuela; students don't pay tuition as the program gets funding from the government, private sector and other sources. One of the centers or nucleo in Caracas gives us a glimpse of El Sistema's methodology. Young children spend around 3 to 5 months with the "paper orchestra" before moving on to play real instruments. Teachers emphasize the importance of playing from the heart rather than technique, as they believe this will improve later on. Students are given ample opportunities to perform through various concerts and activities, thus promoting self-confidence. Then, they move on to audition for orchestras such as the Teresa Carreño Children's Orchestra. Aside from playing instruments, students also learn how to sing and conduct. In some centers, children who are physically challenged or learning impaired also participate in the program. One of the most touching scenes in the film is the performance of The White Hand Choir; a group of deaf or hard-of-hearing kids. At the end of the film we see Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar orchestra amidst a very appreciative audience. From the editing down to the music score, I loved everything about this documentary. It poignantly captures the struggles of the children and how they found hope through music. It also gives us a rare look at what El Sistema is all about. Moreover, the interviews, especially the wisdom shared by Dr. Abreu (whom the kids fondly call "grandpa"), is very inspiring. This film brings home a very important message; that music education shouldn't be exclusive, it should be inclusive. Truly a must-see. -- About.com, Espie Estrella, November 2009
This is one of the most inspirational documentaries on music or social change you are ever likely to see. Filmmakers Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier went to Venezuela last year to capture the human faces of "El Sistema," a state-sponsored nationwide network that uses music as a tool for empowering children and lifting them out of the grinding poverty, violence and dead-end culture of the massive barrios (slums).
Never preachy or insistent, the lens is quick to find the eager, young musicians, who spend a total of 24 hours a week, from kindergarten through to high school graduation, practising and performing music. We see the magic through the eyes of the children, as well as through Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu and his dedicated network of administrators, mentors and teachers. The icing on this rich, multi-layered cake is the gorgeous music we hear, from the little ones all the way up to the flagship Simón Bolivár Youth Orchestra and superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The high-definition audio and video are satisfying.
There's a nine-minute bonus, showing auditions for the National Children's Orchestra of Venezuela. Abreu received the Glenn Gould Prize in Toronto last night, as part of a week-long visit by the Simón Bolivár orchestra. The inspiration is among us. -- TheStar.com, John Terauds, October 27, 2009
This moving documentary shows how El Sistema is changing lives in Venezuela, hundreds of thousands of lives.Not only do we see the poor standard of living and the horror of slums dominated by gang warfare but we are told about all of this through the words of children. Through music, we see these children thrive and find meaning. Through video, we see and hear that the quality of music teaching and making is second to none.Children are immersed in music at the earliest age, and start in a Paper Orchestra, by playing instruments made of paper before graduating to real instruments within six months. And from that early age, children learn that music making is about passion and feeling, not just technique, and then music becomes integral to their lives like the air they breathe. Interspersed throughout are insightful interviews and comments from the teachers, founder Dr. Abreu and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. WKC -- The Music Scene, January 2010
Top Customer Reviews
They'd already seen or owned "Tocar y Luchar", the first beautiful film on El Sistema, but now Maria Stodmeier and Paul Smaczny have gone deeper, and have captured what is beyond words. Their general response of unmitigated admiration for El Sistema's founder, José Antonio Abreu whom Claudio Abbado calls "a saint".
And now, when you see what musicians, such as the true ambassador Gustavo Dudamel,the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, to mention just a few, have emerged from the project,you'll marvel at why it took more than thirty years for us in North America to catch on.
El Sistema has expanded since the first film exposure, and to me, part of the miracle is
how children play as if they were adults - no passage of time seems present. Their dedication - theirs and that of the teachers and staff who work with Abreu - is almost surreal. Where did all these old souls in children's bodies come from? Is this what happens when they're given a chance to experience classical music? When you listen to their wisdom, so beautifully reflected in the many levels of the project, you'll probably be speechless. And hopeful.
There's a great deal more to say about this remarkable documentary which I hope anyone with the least interest in changing the world, orders sight unseen. Paul Smaczny of EuroArts, who has produced the world's finest concert films on DVD, together with the brilliantly sensitive Maria Stodmeier, have done us all a great favour.Read more ›
I am amazad at the way classical orchestral training for untutored, uneducated, poor, hopeless children can lift these same children into the realms of spiritual betterment, professional quality instrument playing and the way to a better life. Some of the children are already traveling going to other countries to play in orchestras.
I enthusiastically recommend the DVD to anyone who loves classical music, to anyone who despairs about the future of classical music, and to anyone who might some day have input themselves into the similar programs that are now popping up all over the world.
Running time: 100minutes, plus a 9min bonus about auditioning for the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra; Format NSC 16:9; Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1; Documentary is in Spanish with subtitles in English, German, French and Spanish; Region Code: 0 (worldwide)
Six stars out of five!
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Video shows that dedicated people of vision can provide children personal paths to success in life, in this case beyond wildest dreams.Published on September 23, 2012 by mnv
I have seen a number of documentaries on the outstanding musical and humanitarian organization, El Sistema of Venezuela, and this is the best, particularly with good editing.Published on October 23, 2011 by catungawandave
I would have appreciated more actual music. This is an interesting use of non violence as a tool for social change.Published on March 11, 2011 by 3FingerBob
This a must have DVD for any lover of music, especially if you are from Venezuela! I'm really proud of "El Sistema", enjoy it!Published on October 13, 2010 by Put A Fyah