“Hallelujah” follows New York City elementary music teacher Peter Mancini and his students as they prepare for a big concert.
In this exclusive guest post, filmmaker Aliza Eliazarov shares her insights on the process and experience of creating this short film:
I first met Peter Mancini while making his portrait for the series See Me After School. He immediately struck me as a great New York City character with his loud, funny demeanor and Brooklyn accent. Committed to providing serious musical training to his elementary students, he established an advanced ensemble group that met during lunch.
In making “Hallelujah,” I wanted it to be both a character study of Mr. Mancini as well as a commentary on the importance of good arts education. I felt that focusing on the weeks leading up to the big Spring concert was the best time to do this in order to bring some tension to the story.
I didn’t want to disrupt classes and rehearsals, so a lot of this was shot in fly-on-the-wall style. We set up two cameras in different parts of the room with no additional lighting and tried to be as noninvasive as possible.
I interviewed several students separately against a black backdrop. I mostly wanted to know how it made them feel to make music and be a part of an ensemble—as well as the greater impact it had on their lives. Some of the kids opened up right away with beautiful and insightfully deep responses, while others took a little more prodding to get talking. We edited short snippets from each kid to give the viewer a chance to really see the students close up, and perhaps provide a very brief peek into who they are.
There was another element to making this short film that ended up getting cut out - and that is the fact that Mr. Mancini is not only a full time elementary school music teacher but also works as a real estate agent and basketball coach on nights and weekends. Ultimately, I felt that this is an important but separate conversation about the difficulties of making a living as a school teacher.
Overall, I think that my background as a teacher has provided me with an insight and understanding when observing and interviewing teachers as well as being able to develop a quick and easy rapport with kids. Working within very strict and limited parameters forced me to approach the work in a specific way, as I couldn’t just visit the school anytime I wanted. I had to pre-visualize/ storyboard how I hoped this to look and plan my shoots accordingly within an unscripted documentary model.
Filming and observing these students as they worked and sometimes struggled to perfect their performance was a deeply emotional experience for me. I teared up more than a few times. Ahmed the drummer stood out to me as someone with so much soul and passion for making music. You could just feel how much this kid needed music in his life.
I initially intended on editing the piece myself, but ultimately decided to hire a video editor to get fresh eyes on the work. I’m so glad I did. Gareth Smit is not only a talented video editor, he is also a musician. I feel like he brought a great rhythm to the piece that brought it all together. We worked closely to make a final product that we were both really happy with.
“Hallelujah” is my first short film/video.
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Air: A Video Blog blog.