Equality, respect, representation — it is striking how the issues Antonia Brico dealt with during the early twentieth century remain prevalent until today.
The first woman to ever conduct the New York Philharmonic on 25 July 1938, her remarkable story is one of the 23 films screened at this year’s European Film Festival (EUFF). Showcasing the cultural beliefs, values, and identities of the Netherlands, the film traces her life journey in the USA from 1924 to 1934, with events spanning across her natural affinity with music to the tumultuous dealings with various maestros.
Despite her achievements, Brico’s story remained under the radar of the wider European awareness and knowledge. Speaking to us, director Maria Peters recounts how it all started with her catching a documentary about Antonia Brico on Dutch television, where Brico, an elderly by then, shared about her career and all the difficulties she encountered to become a conductor. The documentary, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974), was made by the American folksinger Judy Collins, and introduced by the Dutch journalist Rex Brico, who was Antonia Brico’s cousin.
“The fact that this American female conductor was born in the Netherlands intrigued me. I had never heard of her and yet, she was the first successful female conductor of symphonic orchestras in the world. I was struck by lightning when I watched this documentary. I knew right away that I wanted to make a feature film about her.”
The biopic would go on to feature Brico’s challenges as a woman navigating, and disrupting, an extremely masculine industry. “Antonia literally had to beg for almost every concert she so desperately wanted to do. It was one of Antonia’s greatest heartaches that she couldn’t do as many concerts as her male colleagues. This woman who was a brilliant musician, had a hard time finding a stage. despite her dedication and talents.”
Believing in a biopic when no one else can
While she had the constant support of Rex Brico to provide crucial insights and details, Peters was armed with a series of questions while going into the biopic. “What fascinated me the most was the question how she started her quest to become a conductor. What would a young woman do? Would she seek the help of other musicians or influential people? How would these people react?”
Deciding on which aspect of Brico’s life to focus on was instrumental to the final narrative of Brico overcoming the obstacles that stood in her path. “At a young age she travelled to Germany, where she entered the Master School of Conducting at the Berlin Academy of Music. At the age of 27 she conducted the famous Berliner Philharmoniker and got rave reviews for her debut concert. And it didn’t stop there. I was curious to know what makes her tick? What sacrifices did she make? How did she deal with prejudice and opposition?”
Incidentally, Peters herself also faced the biggest challenge while making the biopic: getting it greenlighted. Brico’s obscurity meant that she had to do numerous rewrites to keep the project afloat with the resources required. “Because of these setbacks I identified even more with Antonia. She wanted to conduct, I wanted to direct this movie. For a filmmaker that’s the best energy you can have. Because if I wouldn’t believe in this project, why would anyone else?”
Another unintended setback was the music, which forms the core of the film. “You need to pre-record the music before you start shooting. And we had to have lots of musicians to perform in the scenes with the orchestra’s.”
A filmmaker’s responsibility to culture
Despite the challenges, Peters committed to Brico’s biopic and released The Conductor in 2018, which went on to clinch awards at the Golden and Platin Film and SCENECS International Debut Film Festival the same year, and the People’s Choice Award at the Denver International Film Festival in the following year.
For Peters, what makes a film personally rewarding is the narrative’s ability to evoke emotion. “When the audience is moved by my film, that is the greatest compliment for me. When you can learn something from a film, it means that the subject of the film makes an impact on you – and I always enjoy when I can truly identify with the leading characters. When they have an underdog position and succeed at something, it’s wonderful to watch.”
She also acknowledges that film have intrinsic ties to culture. Film-makers like herself tend to study the history of certain periods and communities that are being explored, and then continue to educate themselves throughout the process of making the movie or developing the script.
“It is also important that as a filmmaker, we show or reflect our personal view on the matter, but without an admonishing finger. The audience is intelligent enough to figure out for themselves what their own opinion is on the subject.”
To date, Peters has directed and produced close to 40 films with 24 wins and 16 nominations. While she is proud of her debut film, The Purse Snatcher (1995), an exposition on bullying, and the war-romance narrative Sonny Boy (2011), her favourite film to date is The Conductor. “It means the most to me because I enjoyed it so much while making it and it is based on an original script that I wrote myself. It is about equality, about music, about respect, about struggle, and more. And from an art direction point of view: It is always an adventure to make a period-film.”
The three biggest influencers of Peters’ life are her father, mother, and her husband Dave Schram. “My father passed away when I was 13 and I think this tragedy had a big influence on my personality and the choices I had to make in my life. My mother also. She gave up her working career, just to be our mother, but she raised me with the vision that women can be as good as men,” she explains. Her husband, as a director and producer himself as well, “shares the love we have for our two kids, but also the love for movie making”.
The Conductor is part of EUFF 2021, which takes place from now until 23 May at The Projector. Film screenings and bookings can be found here.