El Sistema USA

: Documentary
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: In Distribution


El Sistema USA is a feature documentary that is tracking a handful of kids in a diverse, impoverished community in West Philadelphia as they participate in Play On, Philly, a classical music program.


EL SISTEMA USA (working title), our film documentary currently in progress, tells the story of what happens when a visionary young musician from Atlanta starts a unique youth orchestra program in a diverse, struggling community in West Philadelphia -- connecting kids, teachers and families in a way that transforms them all.

Three years ago, Atlanta-born trumpet player Stanford Thompson found his inspiration in El Sistema, the phenomenally successful Venezuelan social rescue program that uses youth orchestras to bring transformation to impoverished communities. Following his training at the Curtis Institute of Music, Stanford spent a year at the New England Conservatory studying all things El Sistema -- which included a life-changing visit to Venezuela itself. Then, in 2010, Stanford returned to Philadelphia to found the Play On, Philly! program.

In our third year of filming, we continue to pursue our various characters and storylines. We see Zebadiah, a 14 year old Trinidadian-American. Bright, quirky and cautious, Zebadiah had led an isolated life before joining POP, shuttling back and forth between school, where he was a solitary figure, and home to his mother and grandmother, who rarely ventured outdoors. His father had returned to Trinidad just as Zebadiah began POP, and Zebadiah seemed veiled and unhappy. Now in high school while remaining connected to POP as a mentor to the younger players, Zebediah is clearly blossoming into a confident, engaged young person.

We have been watching 12 year old Raven being raised by her two grandmothers. Whether she is playing her violin, dancing around the auditorium or attempting to conduct her friends in a makeshift ensemble, her high spirits prevail -- and sometimes get her into trouble. At times she has been punished by her teachers for her smart mouth, getting moved to the back of the ensemble, or getting excluded from a beach excursion, or from an exciting concert at City Hall. Raven nearly quit POP on several occasions, but she has soldiered on, becoming swept up in the music in spite of herself -- eventually earning her way back to the front row of the string section. Her mother’s early death, when Raven was only a year old, is a constant shadow across her multigenerational family; Raven seems to be putting all her complex feelings into her violin.

What makes Stanford Thompson run? This is the question hovering over this dynamic, driven young man who works so hard and sleeps so little. The youngest of 8 children, Stanford grew up in a family where everyone was expected to pull their weight and excel in their activities. Stanford brings this rigorous sense of high expectations to the sometimes unruly kids in the POP program. He is occasionally stern with them, but the very intensity of his demands seems to elicit the extraordinary progress the POP kids are making. Halfway through Year Two, the ensemble was already playing a movement from a Brahms Symphony at Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall, under the baton of the celebrated maestro, Sir Simon Rattle. The Philadelphia audience came to its feet; at that moment, El Sistema had truly come to the city of Philadelphia. This dizzying trajectory reflects not only the POP kids’ hard daily work, but also Stanford’s own drive and vision.

Shooting in verité scene-based style, our Director of Photography, Claudia Raschke-Robinson, intimately follows the growth, struggles and breakthroughs of Play On, Philly’s! participants. As the months pass, we see our characters ever more embedded in their music. Our Philly-based production team, with its deep roots in the community, is accumulating material that will make EL SISTEMA USA as engrossing as the classic Chicago documentary HOOP DREAMS; as thought-provoking as the British documentary series SEVEN UP.

As we continue to film in Philadelphia this year, our story engages ever more deeply with the lives of Raven and Zebadiah, their families and their community – while we also learn more about what makes Stanford Thompson drive himself to the point of near- exhaustion. We see their struggles and triumphs, their good days and bad days. The longer we spend filming our story, the more we show how the challenges and successes of the participants in Play On, Philly! begin to transform their lives.



My father, Leonard Bernstein, believed with all his heart in the power of music to transform the lives of young people. I wish he’d lived long enough to see El Sistema – a Venezuelan youth orchestra program that is bringing social transformation to thousands of disadvantaged children, all around the world.

Two years ago, El Sistema arrived in a tough neighborhood of West Philadelphia. We’re telling the story of the kids, the teachers and the community as the music begins to change all of their lives. Leonard Bernstein isn’t here to see what’s happening, but you are. I hope you’ll join us on our amazing journey.



Jamie Bernstein - Producer

 JAMIE BERNSTEIN is a writer, narrator and filmmaker. Inspired by her father Leonard Bernstein’s lifelong compulsion to share and teach, Jamie has devised multiple ways of communicating her own excitement about classical music. In addition to “The Bernstein Beat,” a family concert about her father modeled after his own groundbreaking Young People’s Concerts, Jamie has also written and narrated concerts about Mozart, Copland and Stravinsky, among others. Jamie travels the world as a concert narrator, appearing everywhere from Beijing to Caracas to Vancouver. Most recently, she has been creating and narrating scripts for the New World Symphony’s Discovery Concert series. In addition to writing her own scripts and narrations, Jamie writes articles and poetry, which have appeared in such publications as Symphony, DoubleTake, Town & Country and Musical America Worldwide. She also edits “Prelude, Fugue & Riffs,” a newsletter about issues and events pertaining to her father’s legacy. More about Jamie’s multifaceted life can be found on her website: jamiebernstein.net

Elizabeth Kling - Producer

 ELIZABETH KLING 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 and went on to edit many films such as Zebrahead and Imaginary Crimes directed by Anthony Drazan, Georgia directed by Ulu Grosbard and Addicted to Love and Practical Magic 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. Elizabeth was Editor and Associate Producer for HBO’s acclaimed series Deadwood, and Lionsgate’s Crash. She edited the pilot for HBO’s Big Love and AMC’s The Killing. She was Executive Producer for the feature film, Handsome Harry directed by Bette Gordon, and is currently producing Border Crossing directed by Bette Gordon. Elizabeth has also taught at Columbia University and the Sundance Film Lab.

Claudia Raschke-Robinson - Director of Photography

CLAUDIA RASCHKE-ROBINSON is an award winning cinematographer. She has photographed independent feature films and documentaries for over 20 years. Her background training is in dance, martial arts and fine arts. Notable documentaries include Oscar-nominated God is the bigger Elvis (HBO) Peabody Award winning documentary Black Magic (ESPN), A Sea Change (Discovery),What’s Your Point, Honey? (Lifetime), Mad Hot Ballroom (Paramount), Oscar-nominated My Architect (add’l DP), Oscar-nominated Small Wonder (add’l DP), Oscar nominated Sister Rose’s Passion (add’l DP) as well as indie features like Kiss Me Guido, Walking in the Sky, Frame of Mind.

Jonathan Oppenheim - Editor

JONATHAN OPPENHEIM’s editing credits include SISTER HELEN and CHILDREN UNDERGROUND, a film he co-produced, which was nominated for an Oscar. He edited the classic documentary feature PARIS IS BURNING, awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Oppenheim also edited and co-produced THE OATH, a psychological portrait of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard, which premiered at Sundance and Berlin. Among Oppenheim’s other credits are: YOUSSOU NDOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE, the story of the great African singers’ attempt to transmit moderate Islam through music, OUT OF THE SHADOW (PBS), which describes a woman’s life with her paranoid schizophrenic mother, CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE (PBS), a cinema verite look at three Arab-American New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11, and PHYLLIS AND HAROLD, an exploration of a failed 60 year marriage. He is the editor and co-producer of the soon to be released BEFORE AND AFTER DINNER, a film about Andre Gregory, avant garde theater director and co-star of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. He has been a story consultant on many films which include, How to Survive a Plague, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Paul Goodman Changed My Life, An Encounter with Simone Weil, These Birds Walk, The Unmaking of Spiderman, American Promise and The Light in Her Eyes. In 2011, Oppenheim lectured on the art of documentary editing at The New Museum and mentored Eastern European filmmakers at the Ex Oriente Lab in Prague. He was recently interviewed for the book, First Cut, More Conversations with Film Editors (Gabriella Oldham, University of California Press, 2012). He has been both an Advisor and a Fellow at the Sundance Institute Documentary Edit and Story Lab and has made presentations to film students at NYU, Yale and Columbia.


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