‘El Sistema’ documentary highlights disadvantaged youth in Venezuela


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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.

-- David Ng

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