by filmmaker Theodore Braun
My reaction to the simple question—what do you think about directing a feature documentary about Gustavo Dudamel—was immediately, yes. But, as it turned out, for the wrong reasons.
A film about the most dynamic conductor of his generation making music with the great orchestras of the world sounded like a perfect change of pace. It was March 2016. I’d just finished a feature documentary, Betting On Zero, that dealt with money, global fraud, and a tattered vision of the American Dream. I wanted to get away from the messy problems of the world. Making a film about bringing something beautiful into world, about the play of creativity, and the transformative effect music has on players and audiences, were fresh challenges. And I’d grown up a classical musician—a bassoon player—and had nearly made orchestral music my life. So, after directing a docu-thriller about allegations of massive international economic fraud, a film about Gustavo Dudamel seemed a return to something I loved—a retreat from global conflict to the simple joys of classical music. Hah!
In February 2017, we started work in Caracas with Gustavo and the orchestra he’d grown up with, the Simon Bolivar Symphony. We filmed a week of rehearsals, then followed them to Europe for performances of the Nine Beethoven Symphonies in Barcelona, Hamburg, and Vienna. Gustavo and the Bolivars had more tours set for later that year. We planned to return with him two or three more times to Caracas. But within a few weeks Venezuela exploded in 100 days of violent street protests that ultimately left nearly 100 dead. The trauma Gustavo’s country experienced compelled him to reconsider his role and to speak publicly in ways he never had. The consequences were profound. Tours were cancelled. He has not been back to Venezuela.
The last three feature documentaries I’ve done—Darfur Now, Betting On Zero, and now ¡Viva Maestro!—are very different films. But at some point in all three the characters are forced to address the question: how do you respond to the problems of the world? The unprecedented pressures of the last few years have pushed all of us, especially in the arts, to explore that question. And they’ve made me realize the folly of trying to make a film that gets away from the messy problems of the world. The challenges we’ve all lived through in the last five years—the political upheavals; the terrors and loss of the pandemic; the eruptions of violence and injustice around the world—make ¡Viva Maestro! feel especially timely. One of the things I expect audiences will be inspired by is how Gustavo responds to the crises he faces—with compassion, with courage, and with the creativity and flexibility that makes him one of the world’s great musicians. The tests of his most treasured values forged in him, I think, a deeper and clearer sense of who he is and the role of art in times of political crisis. His answer—performed more than spoken—is nuanced, but simple: art best responds to problems of the world by staying true to itself, by engaging the problems of world as art.
Posted March 25, 2022