The art of storytelling has evolved over time, especially in recent history, with home audiences once attentively glued to the sounds emanating from their radios. While music remains popular and people may still tune in to listen to their local radio station while commuting, the visual art of film and television has largely replaced that medium. In-home speakers and sound bars are now in fashion, and there’s one documentary which strives to emphasize the power of sound, taking an unusual focus on how we hear to deliver a thoroughly transformative aural experience.
32 Sounds begins by declaring that it will take listeners on a journey through a number of impactful sounds, pairing them in certain cases with on-screen visuals but in others merely presenting a black screen or asking audiences to close their eyes to really take it in. It also opens by asking its viewer where they are and how they’re watching – or more specifically, listening – to ensure that the experience will be best digested. Audiences are reminded to put on their headphones and, at certain points, that they can fully engage in this immersion since they’re cut off from the world and no can else can hear them, at least for the duration of this film.
32 Sounds, which is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature, is not a conventional documentary. It feels more like a curated concert, one that’s well aware that each sound cue may evoke a different response dependent on who’s on the receiving end of it. It takes what people think they know of sound and asks them to reconsider, and to spend time truly listening that they might typically use instead to focus on what’s being shown on screen or paired with a particular noise. It’s a fascinating exercise that by definition is effective since its goal is to provoke thought and not convince anyone of something concrete or definite.
Director Sam Green, a past Oscar nominee for his 2003 documentary The Weather Underground, is no stranger to exploring the way we interact with sound, music, and language. Recent projects include The Universal Language, about an effort to create a shared common language for the world, A Thousand Thoughts, a chronicle of a musical quartet, and the short Annea Lockwood/A Film About Listening, whose title speaks for itself. Green has an evident passion and enthusiasm for sound, and there’s no better way for him to transmit it than in this thoroughly engaging and inventive format.
What 32 Sounds does most brilliantly is to encourage anyone watching to truly stop and pay attention. Those who are used to tuning in and out of something they’ve turned on at home or doing something else while they have a movie on in the background will likely be persuaded that this film deserves the totality of their focus, or as close to it as possible. Better yet, they will be rewarded for that concentration with a new appreciation for the way that they hear things and pair images that their brain tells them should match. With thirty-two sounds to choose from, even if one or several don’t entirely hit home, there’s an impressive catalog from which anyone giving this film the time of day should be able to choose and find something enduring. 32 Sounds isn’t trying to convince audiences of something or change their opinions entirely, but rather to open their minds to the notion that there’s a deeper way of doing a thing they do all the time. In that respect, it’s a complete and wondrous success.
32 Sounds has select showings scheduled here.