“Perhaps 90% of the reality of the universe is invisible to us,” muses a young audiophile, his face glazing over with the wonder of infinite possibility. Like each of the five subjects that feature in Panamanian director Ana Endara Mislov’s “The Joy of Sound,” the curly-haired kid sees the world best through his ears, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
A short, scattershot, and entirely charming documentary that combines the unmediated vitality of Les Blank with the gentle inquisitiveness of Ira Glass, “The Joy of Sound” is — per its title — a project that reverberates with pleasure from start to finish. Conceived in response to a DOCTV initiative that called for Latin American filmmakers to make documentaries about the subject of happiness, Mislov’s hour-long movie is positively drunk on “la felicidad del sonido,” even if it doesn’t entirely ignore the splendor of occasional silence or the ways in which music can rot into noise.
Anchored around the sun-dappled environs of Tucué, Panama, the film provides an auditory impression of the area, sketching the region from its sounds. Shot in soft black and white so as to destabilize viewers (listeners?) from the world as they know it, Mislov’s doc opens with an ambient symphony that reorients the senses as poetic narration is blanketed over the groan of traffic and the music of a flute that’s being played beneath a busy overpass. Mislov splices her cuts with the ratatat staccato beat of a humming bird flapping its wings across the screen — she the spares a thought for every unique vibration, subtly drawing attention to the individual beauty of the stimuli that tends to bleed into the cacophony of city life. The rusted gears of a jostling van, the scrape of an old woman’s fingers running along the handrail of a bridge… anything is an instrument if you can hear the music that people make with it.
“The Joy of Sound” is reliably at its best and most evocative during these brief passages of pure cinema, as Mislov’s human subjects aren’t always as compelling as they could be. In a film this short, the most accessible characters tend to be the most rewarding. The first person who speaks on camera is a blind woman who can name the neighbors who drive past her house just by listening to the rumble of their engines; she’s a pleasure to meet.
Better yet is the older man who loves classical music so much that he takes it upon himself to drive around the city blaring Schubert and Brahms from his car, announcing each new composition (along with a fun fact or two) as it begins to play. “Only culture can set us free,” he declares, marking one of several vague moments during which the film seems to indict the Panamian government for violating the civil liberties of its citizens — that tension remains frustratingly nebulous for audiences who haven’t experienced it for themselves.
Mislov’s other subjects are less engaging, and her decision not to support them with any non-diegetic context — a good instinct for the documentary as a whole — makes it too easy for some of the film’s less vital voices to blend together. Still, individual moments strike memorable chords throughout. You might forget everything else a sound engineer has to say about his work, most of his words going in one ear and out the other, but you’re unlikely to shake the passion with which he describes the sonic poetry of microphones or the natural science of amplifiers, and how they’re capable of translating the earth’s tones so that our planet can speak to us directly.
And if that seems a bit too Burning Man, Mislov isn’t afraid to get more practical; one sequence finds her focusing on the percussive crunch of coffee beans being grounded into powder and allowing such narrow attention to underscore how beautiful sounds get muffled beneath the banality of the actions that cause them. On that note, the film’s focus on labor even taps into the economics of sound, eventually finding that labor has an octave of its own while prosperity sounds different to everyone. These ideas can be difficult to put into words, but it’s not worth getting hung up on the particular — Mislov’s doc is satisfying precisely because it eschews the strict dictums of new age ideologies in favor of a more universal appreciation for the world around us. “The Joy of Sound” doesn’t have anything in particular to say, it just wants to show people how easy it can be to cut through the noise and actually listen to the things they hear every day.
“Abrázame Como Antes” plays this week at the Costa Rica International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.