Happiness: Sundance Review

Happiness Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Happiness Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Striking images of a Himalayan mountain village invigorate this award-winning doc.

Director Thomas Balmes captures a vanishing way of life in remote Bhutan in this Sundance cinematography award-winning documentary.

The encroachment of the modern world on traditional communities is a theme that has been explored in numerous films, both fiction and non-fiction. In Happiness, one of the world documentary competitors shown at Sundance this year, director Thomas Balmes travels to a remote village in Bhutan that is just about to have electricity installed. The film won a cinematography award for its stunning images of this Himalayan mountain community, and it paints an evocative, memorable picture of lives in transition. The movie should be a hit at many other festivals.

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The movie begins in 1999 with footage of the king of Bhutan approving the introduction of television and the Internet in his country, to the cheers of  enormous crowds. But the village of Laya has been slow to join the party. With just 900 residents, mainly yak herders, the mountainside village has missed out on this modern technology. Now, for the first time, crews are laying cables in the town. Balmes’s focus, however, is on one nine-year-old boy, Peyangki, who is sent by his mother to study at the local monastery because she cannot afford to raise all six of her children after the death of her husband. At the monastery the boy will receive food and shelter, but his future there is not guaranteed. There were once nine monks living there, but the number has been reduced to three, and the elder monk who instructs the two boys is going to be departing soon. So we sense that this tranquil way of life is about to become extinct, as new technology extends its tentacles even into these remote regions.

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As the title suggests, the film aims to celebrate the beauties of a simpler, unadorned life. Scenes of the boys running around the quiet monastery have unmistakable allure. But the film also understands the attractions of modernity. In one episode, Peyangki travels with his uncle to the closest city and discovers the excitement of urban life. He sees his first mannequin outside a store and stands rapt in front of a row of TV screens. While in the city, he meets his older sister, who is now working as a dancer in a nightclub. Some of the scenes in the film, like this meeting with the sister, seem staged and rehearsed rather than simply recorded. Many documentarians manipulate the footage they find, but this directorial control seems a little more overbearing in a few scenes of Happiness.

Nevertheless, Balmes demonstrates a sharp eye for cultural contrasts.  He and cinematographer Nina Bernfeld capture the majesty of the isolated rural settings and the energy of the urban circus with equal agility. The musical score by the British rock group British Sea Power enhances the lyrical intensity of scenes set in Laya. Even at just 77 minutes, the film sometimes dawdles, but it provides a vivid glimpse of a vanishing way of life.

Venue:  Sundance Film Festival.

Director-screenwriter:  Thomas Balmes.

Producers:  Thomas Balmes, Juliette Guigon, Patrick Winocour, Kaarle Aho.

Directors of photography:  Thomas Balmes, Nina Bernfeld.

Music:  British Sea Power.

Editors: Alex Cardon, Ronan Sinquin.

No rating, 77 minutes.