As It Happens6:48Canadian filmmaker Ben Proudfoot on his new Oscar-nominated short
The small but mighty group of people who painstakingly repair musical instruments for tens of thousands of public school students in Los Angeles aren’t used to being in the spotlight.
But a new documentary is bringing their stories — and those of the kids whose lives they have changed for the better — to the red carpet.
In their Oscar-nominated film The Last Repair Shop, Halifax native Ben Proudfoot and L.A.’s Kris Bowers tell the story of the L.A. Unified School District’s Musical Instrument Repair Shop, where 11 technicians service about 6,000 instruments each year for more than 1,300 schools across the city.
It’s one of the last public school districts in the U.S. to service musical instruments free of charge.
“I was drawn in by this sort of North Pole of musical instrument repair, and was surprised and proud to learn that it was [one of] the last in the country,” Proudfoot told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
The Last Repair Shop, which is streaming for free on YouTube, is nominated for the 2024 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. Proudfoot won the category in 2022 for Queen of Basketball.
The repair shop operates out of a nondescript warehouse in downtown L.A., where technicians hunch over tubas with sticky valves, cracked violins, and key-less clarinets, determined to fix what’s broken.
But on Tuesday morning, they took a break from their workbenches and celebrated with Proudfoot and Bowers as news of the Oscar nomination came down.
Piano tuner Steve Bagmanyan, the repair shop’s supervisor and one of the film’s stars, says it still doesn’t feel real.
“When my daughter was born, I didn’t quite understand that I’m a dad,” he told CBC. “So the same with this.”
‘We love what we’re doing for our kids’
Since the nominations were announced, Bagmanyan says he’s been fielding non-stop text messages, emails and phone calls from people offering their congratulations. And suddenly, everyone is interested in the work he’s been doing quietly without accolades, for more than two decades.
“I’m very grateful where I’m at today, where God brought me today, that I have this incredible team, and we do these incredible things for our kids,” he said.
“Oscar or not, at the end of the day, we love what we’re doing for our kids.”
For the kids, the instruments can be a lifeline.
One student in the documentary says she doesn’t know what she’d do if she didn’t have her violin. Another says she becomes overwhelmed by the pressures of life, but playing the piano washes it away. Another says he never dreamed he would one day play the sousaphone, an instrument his parents never could have afforded to buy him.
You can’t fix everything that’s broken. But sometimes you can. And for that one time out of 10 where you can, it’s worth doing.– Ben Proudfoot
The students featured in the film are from L.A.’s Colburn School, a music and arts school, which co-director Bowers also attended.
“The Last Repair Shop is a beautiful testament to the power of the performing arts,” school spokesperson Jennifer Kallend said in an email. “We are thrilled to have the stories of Colburn students told in such a moving way.”
‘Stand up and cheer for music and arts education’
Bagmanyan and his colleagues always knew their work was meaningful. But through the documentary, they’ve now seen that impact first-hand.
“At the screenings … I was able to actually talk to these students and it was just amazing how much music changed their life, how much they got better in school, how much energy they got — positive energy,” Bagmanyan said.
“Music can do wonderful things. Music can change lives. Music can take you off the streets. Music can fill you up with joy, with happiness.”
WATCH | The Oscar-nominated The Last Repair Shop:
Proudfoot says the kids in the film taught him how transformative an instrument can be.
“It can attract people to you. It gives you a tool to express yourself. It teaches you creativity and collaboration and sensitivity. And those are all things that we need in our schools and in our world today,” he said.
“So this movie is a vehicle to get people to stand up and cheer for music and arts education around the world.”
It’s not just the students whose lives have been changed by music. The people who repair the instruments all have their own stories to tell — whether it’s about travelling the country with a $20 fiddle from a flea market, leaving home to chase the American dream, growing up gay in the ’70s, or even surviving ethnic cleansing.
And at the centre of each story is music, and a desire to repair — and to heal.
“We all have broken relationships, broken promises. The world is, in many ways, broken. And I think what these people stand for is an optimism that sometimes you can make things whole again with enough effort and care and patience,” Proudfoot said.
“You can’t fix everything that’s broken. But sometimes you can. And for that one time out of 10 where you can, it’s worth doing. And I think there’s not too many lessons better than that.”