, November 2009
A lot of other, more developed, countries could learn a thing or two from Venezuela’s incredible El Sistema music education program…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 auditions 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.