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Hank Zauderer
My Classical Notes, August 2014

This is one of the most inspirational documentaries on the power of music you are ever likely to see. The camera 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, practicing 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.

Through this video, we see and hear that the quality of music teaching and performance 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.

Interspersed throughout are insightful interviews and comments from the teachers, and from conductor Gustavo Dudamel. © 2014 My Classical Notes Read complete review

Greg Cahill
Strings Magazine, March 2012

…El Sistema is a powerhouse organization that serves as both a music academy and social services agency.

This elegantly produced film by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier shows how Abreau and his colorful co-founder Frank Di Polo…have taken impoverished street kids, some of whom have been involved in gang-related gun battles, and transformed them through the power of music by using the structure of the symphony orchestra to bring structure to the young musicians’ lives.

It’s a tribute to Abreau and Di Polo that Dudamel rose so far so fast, but the impact that this program is having on others can be seen in the bright smiles of the current crop of young El Sistema musicians.

Through their eyes, and the eyes of teachers, this inspirational film captures all the magic and mystery of music. © 2012 Strings Magazine Read complete review

James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press, December 2010

2010 Year in Review—James Manishen’s Top 10 Favorites

#1—The documentary DVD of José Antonio Abreu’s world-changing music education system in Venezuela tears your heart out.

Adrian Edwards
Gramophone, January 2010

An inspiring and moving film exploring Venezuela’s extraordinary musical revolution

This inspiring film, subtitled “music to change life”, takes us behind the scenes of the worldwide phenomenon of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela as it portrays the extraordinary story of El Sistema and how it operates from day to day from one of its many nuclei in one of the poorest parts of Caracas. Gustavo Dudamel and his dynamic orchestra are the outward manifestation of these music centres which were started back in 1975. Their founding father is José Antonio Abreu, composer, conductor and politician, who cuts an almost mystical figure in this stunningly photographed film by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier. Working every hour that God has given, Abreu and his co-founder Frank de Polo and their dedicated and gifted staff have been teaching and performing music using traditional principles with the underprivileged and the handicapped. When one of his team queries such long hours, he replies, “there’ll be enough time in eternity”. They’re supported by selfless parents and the other stars of this film, the children with their twinkling eyes and raven black hair. Their enthusiasm is infectious and poignant. Early on in the film we learn of the stark reality of their background: the gang culture, drug dealers and tatty environment. No wonder they regard rehearsals as a haven from the violence of the street and the cramped conditions of home. They’re practical, too: asked what he’d like to pursue as a profession, a boy puts music third, after IT and being a neurosurgeon. Individual children are highlighted: a young boy blows the opening trumpet call of Mahler’s Third without a blemish, a girl conducts Tchaikovsky with evident musical flair. Other scenes highlight Steffen Herrmann’s finely tuned editing, camera work and the beautifully chosen music for the soundtrack. A bird hovers high at dawn over hilly terrain before swooping down on Caracas to Ravel’s Sunrise from Daphnis et Chl. Boy trumpeters, impromptu-like, break into a carnival ditty after rehearsal, a dedicated parent rises at dawn to prepare her son for the day ahead, a choir sings a lullaby at twilight before the camera cuts to the streets at night where a gunshot might maim or kill a vulnerable passer-by. El Sistema comes with several awards to its name. Surely it can’t be long before its remarkable founder Abreu is the recipient of a prize for peace?

La Scena Musicale, January 2010

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.

James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press, November 2009

FOR the doubters that musical study is life changing and necessary for a better society, this indescribably moving film tells the complete story of the astonishing system of music education in Venezuela called El Sistema. From the bullet-ridden barrios with its gangs, drugs and poverty, young music students make their ways to music lessons and group rehearsals in a tightly organized system that is as sophisticated and nurturing as it is visionary.

They start with paper instruments, singing and “playing” then graduating upwards through various levels; the most advanced students ultimately placed in the Bolívar Youth Orchestra that is so advanced as to hold its own with any major orchestra in the world.

José Antonio Abreu started it all three decades ago and you get to know him here. Over 265,000 children have participated. The 100-minute film is beautifully shot, proportioned and detailed. Absolutely not-to-be-missed., November 2009

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…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.

Espie Estrella, 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.

    * Very inspiring documentary
    * Contains bonus feature (Audition for the National Children’s Orchestra of Venezuela)
    * English subtitle

    * 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.

Music Education for All, October 2009

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.

David Ng
Los Angeles Times, October 2009

There are plenty of scenes of Gustavo Dudamel in the 2008 documentary “El Sistema.”

Here he is conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in a concert in Caracas. There he is talking about the importance of El Sistema—the government financed social program that gives free music education to youth throughout Venezuela.

But Dudamel isn’t the main attraction in the documentary, which is newly available on DVD. The real stars of the movie are the numerous children—from toddlers to teenagers—whose lives have been remarkably improved through music education and the daily rigors of orchestra rehearsal.

“El Sistema,” directed by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier, visits the homes of several young students who live in some of the worst slums of Venezuela. The film follows them on their quotidian routines of school, rehearsal and practice, providing an intimate account of life on the micro level.

The movie takes a non-sentimental approach to its subjects and makes abundantly clear that not everyone will rise to the level of Dudamel. In fact, we learn that there is competition within El Sistema for students to make the best youth orchestras in the country. It isn’t easy and many are disappointed.

Along the way, the film conveys several key facts about El Sistema. The program comprises 184 centers around Venezuela and receives 90% of its funding from the state. (It also receives money from private sources.) Much of the documentary is given over to interviews with Jose Antonio Abreu, who founded the program and continues to lead as it expands internationally.

This Spanish-language documentary works best as a primer for people who may not know much about the program. The 100-minute movie doesn’t dig deep and tends to paint a rosy picture of the program’s success.

But in its matter-of-fact observation of daily life in some of Venezuela’s most dangerous neighborhoods, it offers something not often seen in the movies—a portrayal of urban poverty that isn’t despairing or sensational, but instead, optimistic and hopeful.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, October 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.

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9:25:54 PM, 3 August 2015
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