"Teacher" Review: Uplifting Documentary Follows Competition for Female Directors

“Teacher” Review: Uplifting Documentary Follows Competition for Female Directors

I arrive in the wake of Warehouse, Teacher it reaches an audience ready to see the dark side of the world of classical music. And while Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár is notable for her violent behavior, she also represents a common fact: very few conductors of major orchestras are women.

Maggie Contreras’ engaging and informative documentary Tribeca follows an event created in 2018 to address this injustice. Every two years, women in the early stages of their conducting careers join the La Maestra competition in Paris, vying for professional attention and help. They need all the help they can get. Marin Alsop, competition judge and perhaps the most famous female conductor in the world, says in the film that when she told her childhood violin teacher that she wanted to conduct, she was told, “Girls can’t do that.” “. Deborah Borda, head of the La Maestra judging panel and CEO of the New York Philharmonic, says that even today less than 3% of the conductors of the world’s leading orchestras are women. But like the competition itself, Teacher focuses on positive moves and ascendant careers for women.

Related stories


The bottom line

An antidote to “Repository”.

Place: Tribeca Festival (Documentary Competition)
Launch: Melisse Brunet, Tamara Dworetz, Zoe Zeniodi, Ustina Dubitsky, Anna Sulkowska-Migon, Marin Alsop, Deborah Borda
Director: Maggie Contreras
Writers: Maggie Contreras, Neil Berkeley

1 hour and 28 minutes

While following five well-chosen conductors from different countries during the 2022 competition, the film depicts the unglamorous side of their lives and their successes. They are itinerants, moving from one concert to another, hoping to find a permanent place somewhere. Melisse Brunet, one of the main figures, has moved 8 times in 12 years.

In a brisk and sharply mounted opening, the film visits most of its subjects at home as they prepare to go to Paris. He finds Melisse, originally from Paris, teaching in Iowa, with unpleasant memories of the city she is about to return to. Tamara Dworetz, the only American the film follows, is in Atlanta. Outgoing and outgoing, she’s ambitious but she and her husband also want a family, and she wonders how to combine the two. In Athens, Greece, mother of two Zoe Zeniodi is already pulling that juggle. Her work takes her away from her family for long periods, including, as the cameras effectively show us, a month in a dingy apartment in New Mexico. Anna Sulkowska-Migon, young but prodigiously talented, is from Krakow, Poland. Her psoriasis comes out under stress, she admits. The film then picks up the thread of Ustina Dubitsky, a Ukrainian who wears ribbons in the colors of her country’s flag around her wrist, and whose young daughter drew adorable crayons on her score when she wasn’t looking.

We follow their performances as the competition whittles down 14 contestants. (A quick Google search will tell you who won.) Cleverly, Contreras’ cameras face the conductors onstage, allowing us to observe the fascinating differences in their styles. They all have expressive faces and individual body language. Zoe’s style is filled with grand and dramatic gestures. Anna’s is fluid and graceful. Music flows through the film as they direct Mozart’s movements Don Giovanni and piano concertos by Ravel and Clara Schumann.

Alsop and other judges comment on the process and management’s demands, but the film puts more weight on the human interest side, expanding its appeal beyond classical music aficionados. The documentary does not ignore the problems women face. Zoe says that after starting a youth orchestra, she was fired from it when she got pregnant. But the montage emphasizes the camaraderie and support between them. Tamara is practically a cheerleader, she tells Melisse that she will be famous in a week. They all have dinner together, discuss their lives and seem to appreciate that they are already in a privileged position being at La Maestra.

Contreras, a documentary producer directing her first film, has a direct style almost throughout. Ultimately, she makes an odd choice, alternating between scenes of Melisse visiting her childhood home—and memories of her being unhappy and misunderstood—with Anna whom she directs. There is a logical connection. Earlier Melisse had told Anna that she envies her attachment to her home country. But the comings and goings detract from the fine conducting of Stravinsky’s Anna Pulcinella Suite, one of the film’s finest musical moments.

And two disturbing comments are inserted too briefly at the end, when some of the women who were eliminated talk about the feedback the judges have given them. One says she was told her energy was admirable at first but has outgrown it, a judgment she doubts a male conductor would have heard. Maybe yes maybe no. More disturbing, another says she was told to smile more, an idea she plays into deeply ingrained sexist tropes. Teacher leave things there, leading us to wonder how those comments could have emerged from a contest meant to promote women. Even when it chooses to put things at their rosiest sheen, though, the film is invigorating and inspiring, giving some talented directors some well-deserved exposure.