With his 2013 Oscar winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, filmmaker Morgan Neville proved particularly adept at navigating multiple narratives among fascinating musical subjects most known for blending into the background. For his latest effort, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Neville (Best of Enemies, Keith Richards: Under the Influence) applies similar smarts to a classical ensemble that represents one of the biggest risks ever taken by the world’s most instantly recognizable cellist.

Around the turn of the century, Yo-Yo Ma wanted to try something different in an already illustrious career in the classical world. Working since childhood as a prodigal cellist, Ma’s work would be featured on record setting albums and televised performances, and in sold out shows around the world. Appearing on everything from late night talk shows to Sesame Street, Ma was an ambassador for classical music working on a global stage.

In 2000, Ma embarked on his riskiest endeavour to date. For the Silk Road Project, Ma wanted to bring together musical artists from around the world, many of whom were the best at playing culturally specific, sometimes obscure instruments from their homeland. Even during their first practice sessions and performances in Massachusetts (captured here via wonderful archival material), Ma was unsure if the idea would work. Many in the classical music elite also turned s skeptical eye towards Ma’s project, some of whom outright decried the project as “cultural tourism.” How could Ma’s melting pot of musicians stay true to any of the cultures and traditions being represented by the individual artists?

Neville delicately shows that the idea slowly gelled over time and not overnight. The Music of Strangers has a lot of ground to cover considering the number of personal stories required to make Neville’s point that the ensemble works as a representation of Leonard Bernstein’s theories of musical equality. It’s a patient film, but also a personally involving one, with many of the musicians being profiled talking openly about how much their instruments and music means on an emotional level.

Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato and Chinese lute player Wu Man talk about the challenges faced by women trained as classical musicians in cultures where female artists are looked at by some as an affront to cultural traditions. Syrian clarinet player Kinan Azmeh speaks mournfully about what his hometown of Damascus has become. Most memorably, Iranian Kamanchech player Kayhan Kalhor speaks pointedly about loss and sacrifice when talking about his own family in broken tones that belie scars that will never heal. Ma has his own stories about having to put his own culture behind him, but nothing like some of his fellow collaborators have faced.

At times, The Music of Strangers seems to be struggling to find its own path, sometimes rambling between disparate stories without much of a throughline. But much like the music being showcased, Neville’s film takes a look at the art and the people who make it as a whole. The film and the ensemble owe more to jazz and world music than most classical music purists would probably like, and Neville works to express that. It’s a film about cultural adjustment and the kind of reflection and art that can only come from a combination of time and distance. The music made by these artists, both separately and as part of Ma’s collective, aren’t reflections of their respective homelands, but the homes they have built for themselves from what they know. There are few things more inspirational to behold than that sentiment.

Is The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble opening weekend worthy?

Yes, even if classical or world music isn’t your thing. It’s more of a film about the artists and the music they make, and their stories are inspiring, heart wrenching, and culturally resonant.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble opens Friday, July 8, 2016 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check their website for more information.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble trailer