EL SISTEMA USA!
A New Film Documentary
Jamie Bernstein and Elizabeth Kling, Producers
Anthony Drazan, Director
Ofra Bikel, Creative Advisor
Fourth grader Carlton sits tiny and silent amid the raucous whirlwind of school kids letting off steam. He responds to questions in a barely audible whisper. His dad disappears for three days and turns up in a hospital suffering from a mysterious illness. Carlton concentrates all his breath into his flute.
Neli is a shy, 12-year-old Cambodian American. Her mother abandoned Neli’s father and the two girls eight years ago; the little family struggles on. Neli’s viola, and her daily time at Tune Up Philly, have become her refuge, where she can always count on warmth, harmony, and freedom from care.
Six-year-old Kareena is in perpetual motion – and in perpetual trouble. We see her stressed-out single mom sweep into the school auditorium like a storm front in hospital blues, a 10-month old son balanced on one hip. Her voice echoes through the room as she scolds Kareena for today’s misdeeds, but Kareena stands her ground and gives back as good as she gets. Something seems to change in Kareena when she pounds on an African drum.
These are some of the stories in EL SISTEMA USA! -- a new film documentary about the power of music to create social transformation.
Philadelphia has one of the highest child poverty rates in the US; one child out of three lives at or below the federal poverty level. More than a third of the city’s kids never graduate from high school.
Stanford Thompson, a 23-year-old African American trumpet player from Georgia, came to the struggling, diverse community of West Philadelphia last September and launched Tune Up Philly, an afterschool music program that is actually so much more.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, Stanford Thompson’s Tune Up Philly program is “social rescue disguised as music lessons.”
EL SISTEMA USA! is a journey into the heart of a troubled community. With its blend of African American families and recent immigrants from Africa and southeast Asia, West Philadelphia is a microcosm of a new America struggling to be born. And it’s all playing out on South 47th Street, at Tune Up Philly.
One year ago, Stanford Thompson witnessed firsthand the extraordinary success of El Sistema, Venezuela’s visionary orchestral training program that has transformed the lives of thousands of impoverished children -- and given rise to current superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Within six months of his visit to Venezuela, Stanford had raised the money, partnered with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and launched Tune Up Philly, his own version of an El Sistema “nucleo” -- a center where kids learn to play an instrument for free, every day after school, all year long.
The kids are not just learning to play instruments. They’re also absorbing deep lessons about patience and cooperation; about how to stick with a challenge and master it; about how to believe in themselves and turn that energy outward.
This is Stanford Thompson’s gamble in West Philadelphia: to give the Tune Up Philly kids a set of inner resources they can use to raise themselves, their families and even their entire community out of the long-entrenched cycles of poverty and disillusionment. Yes, it’s a long shot – but the evidence in Venezuela demonstrates that it’s not impossible.
Can Stanford and his hardworking teaching team generate the same spectacular results? Will the Tune Up Philly kids acquire new powers to take on their troubled world? And might there be another young Gustavo Dudamel, waiting to be discovered in West Philadelphia?
El Sistema was established 35 years ago by José Antonio Abreu, on two fundamental principles: that the poorest of the poor have the right of access to the highest of the arts, and and that the lives of some of the most deprived children in the world can be transformed en masse by playing classical music.
Maestro Abreu’s inspired idea was to use the orchestra as a template for a highly successful social environment: a place where at-risk children can participate daily in a world that works.
Our film follows Stanford and his hard-working teaching team as they strive to adapt the principles of El Sistema to West Philadelphia, where life is considerably different from Venezuela.
Barely three months into the program, the families cram into the school auditorium for the first concert. Most of the parents haven’t yet seen their children play music; so far, they think of Tune Up Philly mainly as free afternoon child care. The newborn Tune Up Philly Orchestra launches into “Jingle Bells,” and a gasp goes through the audience: this is actual ensemble playing. At the end, the kids are so amazed at the powerful roar of their families’ applause that they almost forget to take their bow.
Five months later, Tune Up Philly is close to concluding its third semester. Kareena is in a time-out nearly every day. Neli arrives in tears, still smarting from the bullies at school who tease her for her “pale” face. The teachers struggle with complex social issues, frustrating discipline issues -- yet they know the kids with the toughest problems are the very ones who stand to gain the most from the Tune Up Philly program.
Telling the Story
Like music itself, our story of Tune Up Philly can exist only over time. We return with our cameras to South 47th Street week after week, month after month, recording the changes, the struggles, the growth. We will be there for the summer session. And we will be there when Tune Up Philly starts Year Two next September, with a whole new group of kids joining the ones already there. And that’s when yet another key element of the El Sistema approach will kick in: the older kids mentor the younger kids. What will happen to Neli when she has a third grader looking up to her as a viola expert? What will happen to Kareena when she finds herself appointed coach to a brand new first grader? We cannot wait to find out.
EL SISTEMA USA!
Anthony Drazan, Director, writes, directs and produces movies and television. His films include ZEBRAHEAD featuring Michael Rappaport, N'Bushe Wright, Ray Sharkey, Taj Mahal and NAS (1992 Sundance Film Festival Filmmakers Trophy; Official Selection 1992 New York Film Festival); IMAGINARY CRIMES featuring Harvey Keitel, Fairuza Balk, 11-year-old Elizabeth Moss, Kelly Lynch, Seymour Cassel, Sam Fuller and the late/great Chris Penn; HURLYBURLY -- David Rabe's screen adaptation of his stage play -- featuring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Anna Paquin, Chazz Palmintieri, Meg Ryan and Garry Shandling (1998 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Finalist, Volpi Award Winner).
His television credits include: TRINITY (Director); EDNY (Writer, Director, Producer); the LARRY SANDERS SHOW; and THE WEST WING (Director). Drazan was a 1988 Sundance Filmmakers Fellow and has been an advisor at the writing and directing labs since 2000. He has also been a mentor/advisor at International Labs in Mexico, Brazil and Jordan. He has been a guest lecturer, adjunct and visiting professor at Columbia University, AFI, NYU, FIND and the Ghetto Film
School. He received his MFA from NYU in 1986.
Elizabeth Kling, Producer, is an editor and producer working in the film and television industry in New York and Los Angeles for over 20 years. She began her editing career in New York working with Robert Altman's OC and Stiggs, and went on to edit many films such as Zebrahead (Columbia Tri Star) and Imaginary Crimes (New Line Cinema) directed by Anthony Drazan, Georgia (Miramax) directed by Ulu Grosbard and Addicted to Love and Practical Magic (Warner Bros.) for Griffin Dunne. She edited the documentary, Andy Warhol: Made in China directed by Lee Caplin and was Contributing Editor on Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (Miramax). Currently living in Los Angeles, she worked for three years as Associate Producer and Editor on David Milch's renowned series Deadwood for HBO, followed by Crash – TV series (Lionsgate) produced by Paul Haggis. Most recently she was Executive Producer of Handsome Harry, a feature film directed by Bette Gordon, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and which opened theatrically in April, 2010. Elizabeth has also taught at Columbia University and at the Sundance Film Lab.
Jamie Bernstein, Producer, is a writer, narrator and broadcaster living in New York City. Emulating her late father Leonard Bernstein’s lifelong commitment to share and teach, Jamie has created numerous concert and media programs to communicate the excitement of classical music. In addition to “The Bernstein Beat,” a family concert about her father that she modeled after his own groundbreaking Young People’s Concerts, she has also written and narrated family concerts about Mozart, Stravinsky and Copland, among others. In addition to traveling the world as a concert narrator, Jamie is also a frequent speaker on musical topics, including in-depth discussions of her father’s works. In her role as a broadcaster, Jamie has produced and hosted numerous shows for radio stations in the United States as well as for BBC Radio 3 in Great Britain. She has hosted the New York Philharmonic's live national broadcasts, as well as live broadcasts from the Tanglewood Music Festival. In addition to her own scripts and narrations, Jamie writes articles and poetry, which have appeared in such publications as Symphony, DoubleTake, Town & Country, and Gourmet.
Ofra Bikel, Creative Advisor, is one of America's leading documentary filmmakers. Her most recent FRONTLINE productions are Close to Home, a 2009 film that chronicles the recession through the stories of a New York City hair salon owner and her clients; and The Hugo Chavez Show, which aired in November of 2008 and looks at Venezuela¹s controversial and outspoken president. She has produced 25 programs for FRONTLINE, and collectively these films have received broadcast journalism's most prestigious honors, including the duPont-Columbia Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award, the NACDL Champion Of Justice Award, Grand Prize and Best of Category accolades at the Banff International Television Festival, and six national Emmys. In 2007, Bikel received the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism, honoring her 30 years of outstanding journalism and filmmaking.