January 18, 2013
Teaching the Life of Music is an uplifting film about El Sistema, a program that teaches youth – particularly those living in poverty – to play instruments in an orchestra. El Sistema began more than three decades ago in Venezuela and has inspired the creation of countless similar programs in more than 25 countries. Teaching the Life of Music focuses on one such group, The Leading Note Foundation in Ottawa, whose OrKidstra program aims to draw new Canadians.
When Noemi Weis, the film’s producer and writer, first learned of El Sistema and its founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, she was immediately inspired. After years of making documentaries about social issues that most people try to avoid (like domestic violence, human trafficking, and gay refugees), Weis had found a happy and hopeful story to tell.
‘This goes beyond music. Music is really just a tool here,’ Weis says. ‘There’s fantastic research on what the Venezuelan group of El Sistema has been able to do over 30 years. . . They have been able to save hundreds of thousands of children through this program – through music.’ By learning how to play an instrument alongside their peers or to sing in a choir, at-risk youth develop a love of music and learn the value of working toward a goal. The result is the prevention of problems like youth violence and intergenerational poverty.
Teaching the Life of Music will screen at Yorkwoods Public School in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of North York. The event is part of an exciting new community screening initiative created by the Documentary Organization of Canada’s Toronto chapter (DOC Toronto) called DOC Toronto Community Connections (DTCC). The free screening series brings compelling documentary films into communities where they will find an interested audience.
Teaching the Life of Music first aired on OMNI last year and Weis has since made it available on DVD. A new study guide has just been produced and she hopes that it – along with the DTCC screening, to which many educators have been invited – will spark teachers’ interest in using the film in their classrooms. So far, educational DVD sales have been slow.
Jackie Garrow, managing director of DOC Toronto, says that one of the goals of DTCC is to help filmmakers find new distribution opportunities. ‘We wanted to help filmmakers find other venues for excellent documentary films, so that there wasn’t this ‘broadcast once, sit on a shelf’ phenomenon.’ So far, DTCC has brought three documentaries to new audiences – really new audiences. According to Garrow, almost half of the people at these events do not typically attend documentary screenings.
‘The idea is to bring the film into the community in an accessible way; use it, talk about it, engage with it,’ Garrow says. And, as she is quick to point out, this idea is certainly not a new one. During the early days of the National Film Board of Canada, a network of projectionists travelled through rural communities, hosting free screenings in any public building they could find.
With today’s widespread access to television and the internet, there aren’t quite as many government employees driving along dirt roads with projectors and showing social issues films in church basements. But community screenings are gaining momentum with documentarians again. While there are more television channels than ever before, that doesn’t mean there are more documentaries on TV. As fewer media corporations compete to reach the broadest possible audience, the range of content available on television is contracting. And as documentary filmmakers see our broadcast opportunities become more limited and the majority of programming more superficial, community-based screenings with a small but engaged audience are an increasingly attractive alternative.
Teaching the Life of Music, with its genuine warmth and optimism, is the perfect choice for a community screening. It presents a story that audiences can enjoy together, an idea that can be discussed when the film ends, and an initiative that can be celebrated (and maybe re-created) by communities near and far. The screening at the end of January promises to be a vibrant event.
Title: Teaching the Life of Music
Director: David New
Producer/Writer: Noemi Weis
Production Company: Filmblanc Inc.
Running Time: 48 min.
Where to see the doc: Monday January 28, 6:30 pm at Yorkwoods Public School, 25 Yorkwoods Gate, North York (with a community BBQ at 5:30 pm and a panel discussion after the screening). To buy the DVD contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chanda Chevannes is a documentary filmmaker, writer, and member of the Documentary Organization of Canada. Her latest film is Living Downstream, about the links between cancer and environment. www.livingdownstream.com
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