“Girls can’t do that.”
That’s what her violin teacher told 9-year-old Marin Alsop when she expressed interest in a conducting career. Today, he is one of the most famous conductors in the world and remembers this exchange in a scene from “Maestra”, a documentary directed by Maggie Contreras premiering at Tribeca Festivalwhich will run from Wednesday to June 18 in New York.
The documentary highlights a profession – conducting – that has historically excluded all but women. It follows five candidates vying for first prize La Maestraa women’s orchestra competition co-founded in 2019 by French conductor Claire Gibault and held in Paris every two years.
In the film, Ms. Contreras, 39, a documentary producer making her directorial debut, presents an up-close-and-personal portrayal of the contestants as they ramp up for a competition whose judges include Ms. Alsop and Ms. Jibo. The five contestants featured in the film were from France, Germany, the United States, Greece and Poland.
In a recent video interview, Ms. Contreras recalled the making of the film and the challenges women face on the concert stage. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you hear about La Maestra?
During the pandemic, on National Public Radio — where I get a lot of my ideas. My fellow producer Neil Berkeley heard it too and said, “Do you think you should direct it?” And I said, “Sure.” It made perfect sense. The world of classical music is a world I have tangentially connected with.
I grew up with classical music in my house at all times. Pop music wasn’t something my family listened to. For better or worse, I wasn’t exposed to what was on the radio.
Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., whenever there was a free Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert in the park, my mom made sure we went. My head was in the pit, wanting to talk to the drummer. The Boston Pops was a concert series on PBS when I was growing up and I was obsessed with conductor John Williams. When you asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, John Williams was my answer. I would swing the wooden spoon wishing I was him. I didn’t have a Marin Alsop to say.
What was it like raising money for your documentary?
Everyone was always excited about this movie. They loved it from the moment they pressed play on our teaser. But there was always that barrier to commitment. We almost stopped production twice and didn’t have the funding to go to Paris until three and a half weeks before the competition. During that time, we assembled a crew of 16 people to follow these women.
Our film is a microcosm of what society should be. Throughout the process of making this film, men in privileged positions said, “Hey, you have to do this.” David Letterman gave us our first amount of money. He happens to be a classical music lover who wants to use his money to make things that are good for the world. The man who is now the executive producer is a banker in Washington, DC
How did you choose the five women?
I chose them out of 14, somewhat randomly, because the pandemic was ongoing and I couldn’t go to all the countries. I firmly believe that if you put someone under the microscope of a lens, they will be interesting. You will find a story about them.
How important was it that you were a woman making this film?
I don’t think I’ll ever be the director who chases social issues. The feminist themes that are critical to this story and critical to our social conversations are a byproduct of the story-soaked, hyper-entertainment audience.
Could a man have directed this, got the five women to open up and express themselves as quickly as I could? I would doubt it and wish I didn’t think about it. This is why representation is so important when it comes to nonfiction storytelling. There was a sense of security. I was sitting there with a camera in people’s bedrooms while they slept.
In one of my favorite scenes, you see maestro Zoe Zeniodis in the tiny kitchenette of a crisp Albuquerque Airbnb eating a hard-boiled egg. There are these preconceived notions of what a conductor’s life looks like and the reality is just the opposite. Maestros eat boiled eggs in a very cheap Airbnb.
How did it feel to shine the spotlight on one of the most sexist artistic professions of all?
When I first pitched this project, my attitude towards it was: I’m reluctantly telling a story about yet another glass ceiling that needs to be broken. The idea of having to break glass ceilings in 2023 is boring to me. I don’t want to have to tell these stories, but they are there to be told. I hope I never have to tell anyone else.
Your film is more about women than about women filmmakers. Why;
Because if I’m going to have to fight against this world that’s not accessible in the first place — if someone’s going to say, “I’m not too sure my viewing is going to be in classical music” — then I have to make it as accessible as possible.
It was very important for me to strip away the stereotypes of what a conductor is: the image of this authoritarian character who belittles musicians, who tremble with fear and reverence. Not only do women have to step into this role, but they also have to figure out how to break free from this stereotype.
What would you like your film to achieve?
I want people to hire these women. I want all five of these women to not stop working. And I hope that people can walk away from the film with the ability to answer the question, “What does a conductor do, anyway?”
For me, I hope people now see me as an individual artist, rather than as a producer in relation to other artists. I hope that my next film will not be as difficult to finance as this one: that for the next story I want to tell, I will have the support behind me, because now I am no longer a first-time director.
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