Director Thomas Balmès’ interest in cross-cultural filmmaking has allowed him to scaffold a bridge between these two styles of documentary: employing a lingering, dewy-eyed camera to portray stunning landscapes and untouched panoramas while telegraphing easy-to-watch glimpses of silent societies. In Happiness, Balmès travels to Bhutan, up to the small mountain village of Laya, as the locals prepare for the introduction of electricity. In 1999, the King of Bhutan opened the doors to TV and the Internet, and Balmès positions his film to pose the question of whether television will truly bring happiness to the indigenous peoples once it stretches out and urbanises the sparse Himalayas.
The director tells the delicate story of a family who acquire a TV set through the eyes of a young boy Peyangki. Part of a large family, his mother can’t afford to send him to school so she enrols him at the nearby monastery to become a monk. He will seek his own happiness through scripture and will be well-fed and clothed. This central theme is what overwhelms—and uplifts—Balmès’ film, at times gloriously, as he sniffs out the moments of innocent glee that stem from living an undisturbed life. Peyangki runs through the grassy planes, flying like a bird, or cartwheels across the open horizons with friends, as a magnificently playful soundtrack by British Sea Power accompanies him.
Shot in crystal-clear 2K HD, assisted by Nina Bernfeld, the documentary could easily be mistaken for a fiction. It is rich with directorial voice, editing, positioning and storytelling, and beautifully blurs the line between telling us about the lives of the small community and simply being there to capture them. Balmès often spent weeks with the family, only to return with one usable shot. So this is carefully and dextrously constructed into a humble tapestry of rural existence. Balmès even pulls the rug from beneath our feet to remind us, perhaps, of the impermanence of happiness, or its relative meaning. Peyangki takes his first trip to the city, star-gazing at all the lights and awed by the traffic. On the way back, he takes his first car ride up the steep slopes, only for Balmès to cut quickly to a shot of him throwing up at the side of the road. Or the long journey that his uncle takes to buy the TV set, only for it to fall off the horse. These moments of comedy are underpinned by the notion that happiness is random, fluctuating and connected to misfortune.
The introduction of TV threatens to remove this sense of spontaneity by creating a type of Gogglebox-people whose inquisitive stare hasn’t yet been dulled by LED backlights. More of these questions could be posed in Happiness, currently at an agile 80 minutes, and could even harness more of the landscapes that infrastructure will destroy. That being said, the film is still a powerful, mesmerising study of life’s great simple pleasures.