‘Happiness’ explores TV’s effect on a remote village
January 15, 2014
Independent filmmaker Thomas Balmes has released eight documentaries and a television series, but at his home in Paris he doesn’t allow computers or TV. He wants his three children to read and explore outside the screen.
"You are virtually every day being asked, ‘why can’t we have television?’" he said.
For years, the people of Bhutan asked the same question of King Jigme Singye Wangchu. In 1999, he authorized the use of television. "You’ve never applauded me before," he told the crowd. "I had to bring television and radio to make you applaud."
Balmes opens "Happiness" with that speech. For the film, he located two villages with no electricity. He chose Laya for its relative accessibility, a day’s drive and two-and-a-half-day walk from the capital, Thimphu.
On a budget, Balmes prefers to invest time rather than assemble a large crew. Over three years, he made seven trips to Laya with a team of 10: two assistants, a sound engineer, translator, cooks and helpers (Balmes films and directs). They loaded tripods, cameras, generators, mattresses and three weeks worth of food onto 30 to 50 horses. The caravan ascended 3,000 feet through the mountains.
When Balmes arrived in the village of nomadic yak herders in 2006, searching for stories and characters, he found nine people. After a few days he visited the Buddhist monastery. He found no one but Peyangki, an eight-year-old monk.
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Little by little, Balmes dug into the boy’s attitude, "something joyful and sad."
His older brother and sister moved to the city years ago. Unlike most villagers, he had never left the mountains, even during deep snowfalls. He shoots arrows and frolics with his friends, crimson monk’s robes billowing against massive peaks.
Peyangki let Balmes trail him and an older boy at the monastery as the two cleaned butter lamps, cartwheeled and whispered to each other beneath the blankets on the monastery floor.
"People are from the first day super natural because they are not thinking of the image they are going to give," Balmes said, "The fact of me being virtually from another planet allows me to be in this moment without disturbing."
The film follows Peyangki and his uncle as they trek to Thimphu in search of a big TV. Peyangki wonders at the unfamiliar hustle and bustle of the city. "These blinking lights are beautiful," he says at the club where his sister dances.
"As soon as you know something exists and you don’t have it," Balmes said. "You are missing it."
The film is partly a response to, "why can’t we have TV?" Balmes sometimes watches movies with his family. He can spot a captivating story. The kids’ eyes stare at the screen almost in terror, until "nothing else exists."
For that effect, "Happiness," merges documentary and fiction, combining observation with poetic shifts in tone. The film concludes with a sequence showing families in Laya glued to a wrestling match on their new television sets, red and blue lights flickering against dark eyes.
"I felt like after being in a kids’ story, which is gentle with nice landscapes," he said, "to finish the film in something a little bit more violent."
Balmes hopes western politicians will think critically about letting children watch six or seven hours each day of programming driven largely by profit. In a few years, he said, the United States might look to Bhutan as an example.
"I want to make things more complex than what they were before people watched my films," he said. "I don’t pretend to give any answers."
"Happiness" is one of 12 titles in the Sundance Film Festival World Documentary Category and will screen: