2024 Hot Docs 'Beethoven’s Nine: Ode To Humanity': Filmmaker turns camera on himself after devastating loss

"Here we are 200 years later and are we any better off?" Larry Weinstein said

Filmmaker Larry Weinstein had absolutely no intention of being featured in his documentary Beethoven’s Nine: Ode To Humanity (part of the 2024 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto). But that changed after his sister, Judih Weinstein, died during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The initial concept was tied to the 200th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, an idea the filmmaker initially rejected after previously making a film about Beethoven. But Weinstein then became increasingly interested in the composer being influenced by Enlightenment thinkers.

"After I'd already rejected the film, I started getting the spark, ... and then I just thought it'd be incredible if we got the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, that was kind of built on those principles of freedom and peace and embracing humankind, wouldn't be good if we got them to perform Beethoven's Ninth," Weinstein told Yahoo Canada.

After connecting with conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, Weinstein was on his way to Warsaw to film this moment, but there was interest in exploring other characters as well. That's when we get to the Beethoven’s Nine: Ode To Humanity that we see today, exploring nine different individuals' connection to the symphony.

In addition to the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra there's Polish pop star Brodka, and Jean Schulz, whose husband Charles M. Schulz introduced children to Beethoven through "Peanuts" comics. Weinstein also takes us to Berlin and the site where Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and to Massachusetts with psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein help to link Enlightenment thinking to Beethoven's symphony.

Additionally, Weinstein features Gabriela Lena Frank, a Grammy-winning composer who was born deaf.

"I was really hoping we would find someone who was in music who was hearing impaired, who could somehow identify with Beethoven and his deafness, because he wrote the Ninth Symphony entirely deaf," Weinstein said. "Gabriela Lena Frank, she not only was born entirely deaf, she is one of the most commissioned composers in the world ... and she had written an article, which was published in the New York Times, how Beethoven encoded his deafness in music."


But following the tragic news of sister's death, after her whereabouts were unknown until December 2023, Weinstein's cinematographer John Minh Tran urged the filmmaker to turn the camera on himself.

"I resisted it like crazy," Weinstein said. "[John Minh Tran] knew all about my sister and what happened on October 7 and he said, 'Larry, I've got this idea that you're going to hate. I think I need to turn the camera on to you.'"

"I didn't want to do it because that's not what I do. I wanted to continue with the film that I wanted to make and I wanted it to be a kind of therapy for me, and a distraction, and then he wore me down. ... I thought, OK well if I'm going to do this, I need to be as honest as possible."

Throughout the film we see Weinstein and his daughter trying to get as much information as possible about what happened to Judih, including a phone call with foreign affairs minister Mélanie Joly. It's a personal exploration of these concepts of humanity and compassion for people, and people being good.

"I don't think a film can change people's minds or change the way in which they look at the world, but I hope they see it as a reflection of someone who isn't condemning," Weinstein said. "I don't make a big thing about about anger at Hamas even, or the Palestinians certainly, because I actually feel compassion for them. Not so much Hamas, certainly not the people who did what they did."

"But having said that, I understand where they're coming from. I understand why they do what they do. And I feel just as much antipathy for authoritarian, sociopathic leaders like Netanyahu or Trump, or Putin. I'm hoping, whether it has to do with the film or not, ... I'm hoping that people just step back and go, we have to be better people."

There's also an interesting question sparked by the film which is, 200 years after Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was composed, is society and our embrace of humanity, and compassion for humans, any better?

"Beethoven himself he suffered, he was suffering. He was in pain. He was deaf. The government was terrible in his time. ... Religion was closing in and the restoration, and there was all this darkness and all this sort of sociopathic behaviour," Weinstein said. "And he said, no I'm going to write this love letter to humanity and I'm going to write it as a protest letter, in terms of what's going on, and this isn't going to happen in my lifetime."

"Here we are 200 years later and are we any better off? It's a huge question. It's hard. It's up to all of us. We can't be complacent. We can't vote in Trumps, we can't all swing right in Canada because we don't like Trudeau's way of being. We've got to be conscious and responsible. We have to grow up. And social media doesn't help, and the silos, ... the odds are really against us. We thought that these new technologies would make us collectively be better, but it actually brings out our worst sides."