One of the only two MIFF outings this year, I caught french doco director Thomas Balmes' Happiness over the weekend. The film is a 'documentary' on the villagers, and in particular a young boy named Peyangki, in remote Bhutan anticipating the long belated arrival of electricity and access to television.
The film opens with archival footage of Bhutan's then King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announcing the introduction of television and internet to his people, "I hope this will bring you happiness" he adds - or something to that effect. When the crowd applauds and cheers, he goes on to self-deprecatingly comment that it was the first time the public have ever applauded anything he's ever said. This opening sets the tone for the rest of the film. A playful yet contemplative look at a community on the brink of globalisation, technology and even materialism.
The film follows Peyangki as he is sent to study at a monastery - his mother can't afford to send him to school. But Peyangki - as you'd expect of a child his age - would rather spend his time running around and playing with others...
Of course, when simplified for trailers and synopses, we can deduce the film's subject matter naturally gravitates towards the threat of television and urbanisation on peace, spirituality and innocence. But as the title suggests, Happiness really explores the more ambiguous question of what is happiness and whether 'ignorance is bliss' is actually better.
"Do you expect TV to make you happy?"
As adults many of us would hesitate before answering, we understand the potential for our decisions to have repercussions and long-term changes to our lives. For Peyangki - answers come easily; yes. Do you want to live in the city? Yes. Do you want a wife? Yes. Why don't you like the monastery? The Lama is strict and I'm not allowed to do archery.
His wants and wishes are something we would dismiss as simplistic and childish naivety, yet at least temporarily for Peyangki his choices truly make him content because he doesn't know any better or of the complications that may follow.
After talking about the film with Wooly (while in an editing sesh for Love & Tolerance) I learnt that Peyangki's story is representative of the entire nation and their experience of television. Bhutan is the only nation which measures the country's success through Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than GDP or GNP. While in theory the emphasis on individuals' well-being and happiness sounds like something plucked from a utopian sci-fi, I sadly concede that it may not be the best scales for making decisions for a nation since happiness and satisfaction in life is relative and highly subjective. You are happy if you don't desire more/other than what you already have. So when television serves as a constant reminder or comparison to how the life of these villagers differs from the rest of the world...will it bring them the happiness they expect? Happiness is the buzzkill at the party who bursts your bubble; even with the best intentions, sometimes our freedom of choice and pursuit of happiness can be detrimental to our own lives.
But the film bursts your bubble 'apologetically,' Balmes tries to balance a fatalistic perspective with a bit of humour and charm, a gentle and reflective score and spectacular cinematography to soften the blow. Not to mention smiling and happy children - Bhutanese kids are all bloody adorable.
I introduced the film as a documentary in quotation marks because the categorisation of the film as a doco should be applied loosely I think; the style can be described as a combination of candid moments and reenactments of their daily lives by the villagers themselves, as non-actors. Sometimes the delivery of dialogue was obviously recited or there are moments where you could tell the pause in speech was someone trying to remember what to say, but overall it's a device that can be forgiven as the viewer becomes accustomed to it. The effect is a film that has more of a structure and direction for viewers to follow, but clearly a documentary heavily influenced by a filmmaker's vision.
Does it feel true and authentic to their lives still? Yes and no. I'm still undecided on that one. But it was definitely educational, thought-provoking and beautiful.