Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville on traveling the globe with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

By Bliss Bowen

Yo-Yo Ma sets sail with a diverse crew of music virtuosos in “The Music of Strangers”

Yo-Yo Ma sets sail with a diverse crew of music virtuosos in “The Music of Strangers”

“What’s the purpose? Everything I’ve learned about performing, about music, about what happens between the notes — that’s about making sure that culture matters.” — Yo-Yo Ma

Early in “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” members of the collective stroll to a marina’s edge on a cobblestoned plaza in Istanbul, as artist Kevourk Mourad makes broad brush strokes across a canvas on the ground. Turkish diva Aynur Dogan’s ululating vocal leaps above rousing, seemingly improvised exchanges between internationally celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Iranian kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, Chinese pipa player Wu Man, Galician bagpiper Cristina Pato, Chinese sheng master Wu Tong and various percussionists and string musicians as an appreciative crowd clusters around with cameras and cellphones.

“That was literally just a pop-up show that we staged to film,” says director Morgan Neville. “Nobody knew who they were. In fact [laughs], at the end of that show somebody came up and asked if they could play their wedding.”

Neville is no stranger to music documentaries. The Pasadena native won a best feature documentary Oscar for 2013’s “20 Feet From Stardom,” and he has also directed documentaries about singer-songwriters (“Troubadours”), Keith Richards (“Under the Influence”), Sam Phillips (“The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll”), Cowboy Jack Clement (“Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan”) and Iggy & the Stooges (“Search and Destroy”), among others.

But “The Music of Strangers” presented unexpected logistical challenges — and surprises. While shooting in six languages in Beijing, Boston, California, Damascus, Galicia, Istanbul, New York, Tehran, and refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, among other far-flung locales, the crew got schooled in cultural sensitivity, and the film took on deeper dimensions as artists reached across language and political barriers to communicate.

“We are not our political identities,” Kalhor notes in the film. “Nobody remembers who was the king when Beethoven lived. But culture stays … music stays as part of culture.”

You’ve made several music documentaries and your production company’s named Tremolo; are you a frustrated musician?

I’m a musician. [Laughs.] I’m not frustrated, because I realized early on that I was never gonna make a living as a musician. [Laughs.] My three big loves growing up were film, music and journalism, and I kind of figured out a way to do them all.

As a filmmaker, what intrigues you about music?

Music is an amazing Trojan horse to tell other stories. Music brings with it nostalgia and emotion and association and audience, oftentimes. It has all this great stuff to use as a filmmaker. But once you get your audience there you can tell whatever story you want, and I feel like the best music films are not about music. I feel like music, in a way, is a prism through which you can tell any kind of story.

Of all your documentaries, that’s especially true of “The Music of Strangers.”

Probably. The questions that Yo-Yo’s been asking, that the Silk Road’s been asking, are questions about culture. So for me the film is one language, and music is one language, but they all fall under this umbrella of culture. And culture can be food or language or music or film or art — any of those things. But they’re all manifestations of a certain sense of self-identity, and that’s the stuff that interested me.

Yo-Yo’s been asking these questions of himself for a long time: “Does culture make a difference? How can culture be used as a tool for social change? Does what I’m doing matter?”

Without knowing where the story was going to go, I knew those were questions I wanted to ask, and I knew I had a character who could take you there. And that was enough.

Cristina Pato talks about “keeping the roots of the culture alive,” yet it seems for some that working to keep that alive sometimes disconnected them from it.

It’s one reason I wanted to concentrate on some of these stories. In America we tend to take art and our artists for granted. We look at arts education as nice but expendable. And when you look at artists in other countries and see artists who’ve been expatriated or jailed or worse for their art, it reminds you that culture has stakes. All these countries, be it China or Syria or Iran or Spain, had had cultural revolutions, be it political or fascist or religious or economic cultural revolution — they’re not called “cultural” revolution by mistake. It’s because the easiest way to subjugate someone is to erase their culture.

Kojiro Umezaki says Silk Road members felt a responsibility to “work harder” following 9/11. Did any recent global unrest similarly inspire you to make this film? How long did it take?

Four-and-a-half years. I actually finished the film last August and we premiered it at Toronto and we took it to the Berlin festival in February. Seeing the difference in how the film played from Toronto to Berlin was tremendous. Obviously the refugee crisis is so urgent in Europe right now, particularly in Germany. And it continues to evolve as the world continues to evolve. We didn’t set out to make a film about home and refugees and tradition and immigrants and all these ideas; it grew into that. But those are issues that are just becoming ever more acute. We actually just dubbed the film into Arabic and we’re screening it in refugee camps starting this week, which is amazing. I’m so happy that’s happening.

One of the more poignant passages occurs when Kinan Azmeh talks in his New York apartment about his definition of home: “The place you want to contribute to without feeling you have to justify it.” Did you initiate the trip with him to the Zaatari refugee camp?

He had actually planned a trip before, and I said, “We have to film that.” That’s the first time he had been to that camp. Now he’s made at least three or four trips to various camps. Wo Man is actually at that same camp today in Jordan.

Aside from the camps, was there any place you felt a sense of volatility or threat?

Not really. No. It’s interesting, because I think even filming in Istanbul now versus a year and a half ago would be different. Istanbul’s been changing so much; I mean Turkey has. But we had an amazing experience.

When we went to China, we had to do a sanctioned film shoot. I think a lot of American documentary filmmakers will just kind of shoot under the table, but because we were there with Yo-Yo we couldn’t do that. So we did an official shoot with the state, and then they assigned us a minder, which we were all quite worried about. Fortunately, it turned out our minder was 75 and all he cared about was reading his newspaper and sleeping on the bus.

There’s a beautiful scene with Kalhor playing on a dark bridge; where was that filmed?

There’s an amazing place called the Basilica Cistern. It’s hundreds and hundreds of years old, an underwater cooling system for the city of Istanbul. They opened it up for us. Doing that shoot was one of my favorite shoots of all time, really. You just live for locations like that, and to bring music like that into that location was kind of magical.

I didn’t even realize this, but Kayhan’s never really talked about the things he talked about in the film to people. Even members of the ensemble had never heard him talk about those things. For him to open up took a lot of courage. That’s part of what this is all about. As
a documentary filmmaker, the number one essential thing to have is trust, to build trust with people, to understand that they can be vulnerable around you and you can be vulnerable around them. In a way that’s very much what it’s like to be a musical collaborator too; it’s all about trust building. It takes time. That’s why it took four years.

Outcomes aren’t certain with documentaries, especially one with such a broad scope. Did you have preconceptions of how to shape your film that got altered?

Oh, always. Preconceptions are dangerous. [Laughs.] I think feature filmmaking is often about what’s your voice and what do you want to say, and documentary filmmaking is about listening. The longer you do it the more confident you are that you’re going to find that thing on the way, if you listen hard enough and know how to capture it.

“The Music of Strangers” opens at the Laemmle Monica Film Center (1332 2nd St., Santa Monica) on Friday, June 24. Call (310) 478-3836 or visit