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Written and directed by Theodore Braun
Classification N/A; 99 minutes
Opens in Toronto theatres April 8, with additional cities throughout the spring
In 1975, with financial assistance from the government, Venezuelan activist, educator and musician Jose Antonio Abreu created a revolutionary arts program that provided free classical music education to the country’s youth. Billed as “music for social change,” El Sistema, as it’s called, has helped provide training to more than 700,000 young people in the country.
One of the program’s biggest success stories is internationally renowned violinist and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, a talent whose accomplishments include becoming the youngest guest conductor to ever lead the Vienna Philharmonic, and being named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. He’s won a Grammy and Toronto’s prestigious Glenn Gould Protégé Prize, and was the inspiration behind the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. And he credits all of these remarkable achievements to El Sistema and in particular, Abreu, his long-time mentor.
!Viva Maestro!, a new documentary written and directed by Theodore Braun, looks at Dudamel’s relationship to Abreu, as well as the young people of Venezuela, and the conductor’s unrelenting belief that music can truly change the world. This belief is challenged throughout the documentary, however, as Dudamel’s plans with Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Orchestra, which include a world tour with the youth orchestra, are upended as the country finds itself in political turmoil.
The film opens with a rehearsal that, unbeknownst to Dudamel, would not only be his last with the orchestra, but the final time he’d step foot in the country for years to come. Shortly after, the country erupts in violent protests that take hold of Venezuela and eventually lead to 163 deaths.
!Viva Maestro! is a stunning, poignant look at this incredible moment in history through the lens of classical music, with Dudamel as its anchor. The doc shines a light on his tenacity and passion for both his homeland and the many young people he has inspired. It takes you on an emotional, uplifting journey across many countries and through civil unrest, with music ultimately winning out over dark forces that would otherwise challenge and limit free expression and art.
It’s part of a collection of films called the Impact Series, movies that focus on social and environmental issues across the world. The series also includes such films as Writing with Fire, about India’s only all-female news network, and Captains of Zaatari, about two best friends living in a refugee camp in Jordan who hope to become professional soccer stars.
!Viva Maestro! feels remarkably timely given the events unfolding in Ukraine, as the world is witness to heartbreaking images of destruction and death. And yet alongside those devastating scenes, we also see glimpses of hope, as when the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra held a “concert for peace” in Maidan Square early on in the invasion. What better symbol for the triumph of art and its ability to buoy the human spirit than Ukrainian musicians holding on to the beauty of music even in moments of unfathomable violence?
Special to The Globe and Mail
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