This new documentary by Los Angeles filmmaker and former Lompoc resident Kerry Candaele may be just the thing the classical music world has been looking for. By weaving together four separate narratives about the amazing versatility of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a source of inspiration, Candaele braids several strands of discourse about the benefits and cultural value of classical music into something like a cinematic symphony. In Japan, the “daiku,” as the Ninth is called there, has spawned a widespread phenomenon of amateurs training for months to sing the choral parts in gigantic ritual performances of the work that occur all over Japan every December. In Germany, the Ninth became a symbol of the reunification process that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Likewise, at the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing in that same year, protesters played recordings of the Ninth to rally the students and to obscure the amplified sounds of the government’s orders to leave. Finally, in what is perhaps the most surprising and touching of all the stories in Following the Ninth, Candaele has uncovered an incredible cache of footage that shows Chilean women gathering outside of known torture prisons during the oppressive Pinochet regime and singing the “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth until they are dispersed by tear gas. This practice served not only to demonstrate the resolve of the singers, but also to boost morale for those being held and tortured within. The filmmaker has even managed to find and interview two people who were directly involved — a woman who was one of the singing protesters, and a man who was inside and heard the song.
In addition to accomplishing the important task of bringing these four inspirational stories to light, Following the Ninth succeeds on another level, that of brilliant filmmaking. There is no standard documentary-style voice-over narration. Instead the people involved tell their story directly to the camera, and, through the combination of an amazingly artful and meticulously edited score and an astonishing selection of archival footage, Beethoven’s Ninth does its thing. The cumulative impact is tremendous, and even for those who believe that they have heard and responded to the Ninth to the absolute breadth and depth that their souls can reach, this film takes one even further into the music’s incredible range and pathos. I spoke with director Kerry Candaele last week, and he described the genesis of this outstanding film and the process that he went through to make it.
Documentary filmmaking is typically an arduous process punctuated by extended bouts of fundraising. Was that true in this case?
Yes, I’d say that’s a fair description. I started out with what at the time seemed like a large donation to get me going, but one of the first things I found out was how fast that money gets spent. In all it took six years to bring the film to completion. In that time I traveled literally all over the world. I went out on the road and came back home to look at the footage over and over.
What gave you the idea to do a film about something so unusual?
I didn’t want to do another biopic or something you could as easily read in a book. This topic seemed like it would have that extra dimension that makes something a good film subject.
How did you find that incredible archival footage of the Chilean women singing?
Hard work! Actually to some extent I got lucky there because I did find one person who had filmed the protests, and he still had his prints. Then I found a guy who had actually been inside and heard it. That was what was incredible.
What has been your favorite aspect of making this film?
I love all the ways in which the film is a surprise. For example, with Feng Congde, the Chinese dissident who tells his story, I love it that he almost wasn’t there at all. He was ready to go to the United States and pursue his degree, but his computer broke down, and he ended up staying and becoming one of the main leaders of the protest on the square.
I was also just fascinated by the utopian nature of all these movements more generally. I love the expression that one of them uses, that these are situations that demand that you “become who you are.” That’s such a powerful idea, and it works so well with the music. This is what living really means, to become who you are. And in the process, the music became something, as well. For example, the Chilean women said that “the music became a shield for us,” and then you see it working in the same way in Tiananmen Square.
Following the Ninth screens at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Tuesday, June 4, at 7pm — on the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising. For more information, visit followingtheninth.com.