Saturday, June 13, 2015

I feel useful

Two more Cinetopia movies today, seen almost back-to-back. Both were documentaries.

The first was Crescendo! The Power of Music. I'm familiar with the El Sistema music education system developed in Venezuela. This program gives poor kids the motivation to do something with their lives. It also gives them a sense of community – the success of the concert depended on everyone's efforts. I've seen videos and heard recordings of the top teen orchestra. See the Venezuela Youth Orchestra and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra on YouTube. These are excellent and amazingly energetic performances. This is the program that created Gustavo Dudamel, the sesational international conductor.

The movie referred to El Sistema only as needed to set the background. Instead, it was about two El Sistema programs, one in West Philadelphia, the other in Harlem. We follow Raven playing violin and Zebediah on viola, both in West Philly, and Mohamed on trombone in Harlem. The kids have good success (though Raven develops an ego) and find friends and community. Though Mohamed blossoms on trombone, his success doesn't carry over into the rest of his schoolwork, at least not yet. His father wants to pull him out of the program and the music leaders try to convince the dad the music lessons will have a positive effect, eventually.

The second movie was Becoming Bulletproof and was my favorite movie of the festival. Every summer Zeno Mountain Farm, a non-profit organization, runs a program for physically and mentally disabled people. Over about two weeks they shoot a movie with the disabled people playing all the parts and doing some of the crew jobs. Their intent is to make a movie people really want to see, not just make a statement. In the course of this documentary the movie being made was the Western, Bulletproof Jackson. Much of the documentary is about AJ Murray, who was born with cerebral palsy and can do very little for himself. AJ badgers the directors for a place at the camp and is admitted only at the last moment, apparently because someone else had to drop out. AJ takes the role of the town mayor. We see AJ trying to learn his lines. That's not an easy job with poor vision, so someone has to read the lines to him. We see AJ struggle through several takes of his scenes, then endure the long wait while equipment is adjusted or other scenes are shot. We also meet a few other actors and learn about their backgrounds. The participants are then seen at the premier of their movie a year later. AJ summed it up. In front of the camera he felt useful, that his life had a purpose. Away from the camera he felt useless. He dreams of the day when disabled people appear in movies so frequently that it is no longer remarkable.

After the movie AJ was there with the Cinetopia chairman to talk about his experience and to answer questions. AJ said he is becoming active in the Zeno program, trying to do more things with them outside of the summer program. He is also looking for ways to expand the Zeno experience to other areas of the country. The chairman was caught off guard when someone asked, "So why isn't the Bulletproof Jackson movie a part of Cinetopia?" He admitted that was a big blunder on his part.

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