A little more than 15 minutes into “The Music of Strangers,” a new documentary by director Morgan Neville about Yo-Yo Ma and his pan-cultural Silk Road Project, the world-famous cellist is seen addressing an audience, TED Talk-style. He’s recounting a high-profile 1980s interview, during which he’d been asked what his next project might be. “Casting about for something, anything, I said that I had always been fascinated by — guess what? — the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert,” Ma tells the audience — and, in an inserted flashback, Charlie Rose, his original interrogator. Eyes wide, Ma shrugs theatrically. “Yeah,” he adds, acknowledging how unlikely his youthful aspiration had seemed.
Moments later, Ma is jamming with Kalahari Bushmen, engaging joyously in an encounter that few classical-music superstars likely would have contemplated, let alone undertaken.
In the older footage Ma looks almost painfully earnest. In the present-day lecture he’s poking fun at himself, seemingly amused by his youthful idealism. The distance between those images, and what it says about Ma’s journey as an artist and world citizen, illustrates a subtlety at play throughout “The Music of Strangers,” which opens here on Friday. Ostensibly a documentary about Ma’s long-running musical passion project, the film equally contemplates some of the roles that artists assume in attempting to address broader societal issues.
Neville, in a recent joint interview with Ma by telephone, said that the process leading to “The Music of Strangers” began 4½ years ago, when someone recommended him to Ma to film a concert. Intrigued, Neville flew to Boston to meet with Ma.
“We had this kind of great evening where after 20 minutes Yo-Yo was telling jokes, and after an hour we were talking about philosophy, and after two hours Yo-Yo was looking at pictures of my kids on my phone,” Neville said. “At the end of that night, I had that documentary feeling: I’ll follow him with a camera, anywhere.”
He was put to the task quickly. “That infamous night when I met Yo-Yo was a Tuesday, and I flew home Wednesday,” Neville said. “And then I got a call, end of day Wednesday, saying, ‘Can you be in Hong Kong on Saturday?’ And I said, Sure.”
The film, more than four years in the making, would find Neville not only traveling around the globe in pursuit of his nomadic subjects, but also traipsing back and forth through time, gathering footage that ranges from a pint-size Ma playing for President John F. Kennedy, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and Leonard Bernstein to contemporary jam sessions among players representing wildly disparate traditions. Scenes of the inaugural Silk Road Ensemble summit meeting in 2000 at Tanglewood are amply represented.
As the director of the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” Neville knew how to work with musicians sensitively and effectively. The more recent “Best of Enemies,” about the televised debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, provided a perceptive, persuasive view of social politics and the media. Both perspectives would come to inform “The Music of Strangers,” the story of which wasn’t immedately apparent to Neville or to Ma.
Eventually, Neville elected to emphasize five Silk Road Ensemble members —
“Morgan, as the filmmaker, has to be the storyteller,” Ma said, “and I think ultimately he chose wisely in looking deeply into the lives of five people.” Scenes in which Azmeh discusses present-day conditions in Syria with passion and even anger, Ma explained, lent a human face to tragedy too incalculable to measure otherwise.
In another of the film’s most moving sequences, Kalhor — like Ma a celebrated prodigy, who began his musical studies at age 7, performed on national television in Iran at 13, and left the country after the Islamic Revolution not in protest, but to further his education — describes the anguish of exile, of separation from his wife in Iran, and of losing family in the Iran-Iraq War.
“It is a tribute to Morgan’s style, and to how much Kayhan trusts Morgan, for him to reveal this,” Ma said, “because in the18 years I’ve known him, he’s never talked about it in front of me. The fact that he was willing to expose the most harrowing moment of his life, and to be willing to reveal that on film, I think was just absolutely mind-boggling.”
That kind of trust, Neville responded, is intrinsic to the kind of work both he and Ma pursue. “I’ve mentioned to Yo-Yo that I think ‘The Music of Strangers’ is actually a contradiction in terms, because you can’t make music with somebody and remain a stranger. And I feel like it’s the same thing making documentaries — you’re sharing somebody’s life, you’re asking them to share their lives with strangers, but the good that comes from that is huge.”
His principal subjects, it so happens, are united initially by their iconoclasm. Wu Man, for instance, might have been destined for a more prosaic career, had she not abandoned the Bejing Conservatory for a more wayward path through an unfamiliar New York City. Pato, a green-haired bagpiper whose presence among the Silk Road players adds a noticeably earthy spark, is described onscreen by a Galician culture minister as “the Jimi Hendrix of the gaeta — but I don’t think everyone likes Jimi Hendrix.”
Compiling, contrasting, and combining the stories of his subjects, Neville zooms in on a paradoxical truth: These restless innovators and unruly explorers are no mere cultural tourists, but instead are engaged deeply with preserving their native cultures, precisely by bringing them into the public eye and enabling them to evolve.
“The thing that united the characters in the film was that they were all on a similar journey,” Neville said. “I thought about it in terms of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero with a thousand faces,’ and I literally got my college textbook copy of Joseph Campbell out and read it. These were all people who came from a home, from a tradition, and they all felt this call to action to leave that tradition — and then, through their experiences out in the world, brought something new back to that tradition.”
Ma agreed, emphatically. What “The Music of Strangers” documents, he suggested, is a confluence of immigrants and hope at a time of widespread social and political upheaval.
“There are two reactions to that,” Ma said. “One is to close in. You become fearful and you protect yourself; you build walls in order to feel a modicum of safety.”
The other response, he said, is “to approach change by remaining open. This happens every time we walk onstage: You are somewhat fearful, and you have to overcome fear by truly believing to the utmost how much you love something that you want to share with other people.”
Ultimately, Ma added, the Silk Road Project is for him an expression of belief. “I believe it’s better to construct things rather than destroying things,” he said. “I believe it’s better to build bridges than to build walls.”