Maestra marks the feature directorial debut of Maggie Contreras, who previously produced Gilbert with Maestra producer Neil Berkeley.
Music takes center stage in this documentary–conducting an orchestra, that is. It’s a particularly timely doc given the recent success of Todd Field’s TÁR, starring Cate Blanchett. Anyway, this film focuses on five women who make their way to Paris for the four-day La Maestra competition. The competition is for women who are going against the grain in a field traditionally dominated by men. Contreras manages to find the personal stories as the passion comes through for the work. It’s a personal film for Contreras, who grew up wanting to be a conductor. It speaks to the larger influence of the legendary John Williams (there’s a documentary I need in my eyeballs) on the world of music.
Hollywood owes a lot to Vienna in terms of film music but the Vienna Philharmonic wouldn’t allow any women into their ranks until 1997. Most recently, only 3% of orchestras are conducted by women. How is this even right?!? Anyway, it was sexism that led Claire Gibault to start up La Maestra. But still, the fact that it took sexism to start up this competition is infuriating in and of itself. Why can’t men and women be on a level playing field when it comes to creative fields? Tribeca platformed a pair of documentaries that showed the problems with equality in sports: LFG and Unfinished Business. It only makes sense that they do the same for music. Maybe we’ll get a similar doc about women in film next year? Who knows.
There are all sorts of women competing but it’s smart that the focus remains on a few of them. After all, this documentary is only 88 minutes long, including credits. There’s a mother from Athens. There’s a Ukrainian just focusing on the work while Russia invades her country. You have a Polish student at at the start of her career. There’s an American woman wanting to start a family, which also leads to balancing home life with work life. Finally, there’s the French immigrant who is finally returning to a city that rejected her many years prior.
On one level, the documentary is a glimpse into the field of orchestra conductors. But on another level, it speaks to a bigger problem with many fields where women have a tough time competing with the men. Look at how many women have been nominated for Best Director or Cinematography. Hell, look at the winners of Best Original Score through the years at the Oscars. Only three women have won: Marilyn Bergman, Rachel Portman, Anne Dudley, and Hildur Guðnadóttir. In Bergman’s case, she wrote and her husband were a team. When one looks at the Oscar categories where it’s tougher for women to break through, it shows how much work is left to do in the industry. But I digress.
The last time I was on the ground for Tribeca, I saw a film, Bathtubs over Broadway, executive produced by former Late Show host David Letterman. This time around, Letterman and Worldwide Pants Inc. keep the music theme alive in executive producing Maestra. It’s Letterman’s first produced feature since 2018. Aside from Letterman producing and having female directors, the two documentaries could not be any more different.
While Maestra focuses on women conducting orchestras, the film speaks to a bigger issue about gender equality.
DIRECTOR: Maggie Contreras
SCREENWRITER: Maggie Contreras, Neil Berkeley
FEATURING: Mélisse Brunet, Tamara Dworetz, Zoe Zeniodi, Ustina Dubitsky, Anna Sułkowska-Migon
Maestra holds its world premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival in the Documentary Competition. Grade: 3.5/5
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.