Filmmaker Thomas Balmès is no stranger to trotting the globe in search of human stories, in films including Bosnia Hotel and The Gospel According to the Papuans, and most famously capturing the stories of several photogenic infants in San Francisco, Tokyo, Mongolia, and Namibia in the acclaimed documentary Babies. For his newest film, Happiness, he nestled himself in the remote Himalayan nation of Bhutan, famous for measuring its own “Gross National Happiness,” for the story of a young boy’s first exposure to technology and television. Balmès captures the innocent beauty in the faces of his subjects and through gorgeous shots of the landscape he illuminates a complicated time when a way of life that has been relatively unchanged for hundreds of years meets the seduction of technology.
Happiness premieres on Independent Lens this Monday, November 17, at 10 pm [check local listings]. After it played at the Sundance Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Stephen Farber wrote, “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.” Balmès emailed us some of his thoughts about the making of Happiness from his home base in Paris, France.
What led you to head to Bhutan to want to make Happiness?
Having three kids, and directing documentaries for 20 years mainly for television, I had regularly to answer the question from them: “Dad, why don’t we have television at home?” I guess this film is my answer to their question.
What impact do you hope the film will have?
Challenge our relationship with screens in general and especially television. Both content-wise and in general. An American family is spending an average of eight hours per day in front of television per day.
What were some of the biggest challenges you surely faced in making Happiness?
Weather. Due to a huge flood in Bhutan, the construction plans of the road and the electricity were constantly delayed as the temporary mud roads were regularly entirely washed away, which made the shooting very difficult. You have to walk two days to reach the 4000m high village of Laya.
And I imagine it was quite difficult shooting at high altitudes for a good period of time?
Physically this shoot was definitely the most difficult one I ever went through. There is less oxygen at 4000 meters high, and so you get easily tired while walking or filming with very heavy filming equipment on your shoulder. Even the nights are not that nice as you sometimes feel you can’t breathe properly.
But among all these difficulties, the worse of the worse was the endless dogs barking every single night which, when you are not used to that as the Bhutanese are, can really disturb your nights. Anyone who has visited Bhutan could speak about this as it is the same all over the country. Dogs, sleep all day and bark all night…
What aspects of the Bhutanese village culture surprised you the most?
On a practical level, I would say that one of the most difficult if not surprising aspect of the life in the village of Laya is the distance in between each houses, which make the village life very different from what we usually call village life in the west. Which [is another thing that] made the shooting also quite exhausting, as we spent our days climbing from one house to another to the monastery which were all km distant from one another.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Film after film I guess you get used to getting the trust of your characters by being very honest about what you plan to do and make your characters active parts of the project.
Is there a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you?
For the last twenty years I have been trying to observe “first times,” like in my previous film Babies. I guess the portraits of these faces watching television for the very first time is something which I feel summarizes what I’d been trying to do in Happiness.
Have the people featured in the film, the people of the village, seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The film was shown to Peyangki, his family and Laya villagers and I’ve gone back in October to show it in Timphu (Bhutan’s capital), including to some politicians who I’d already met and are interested to think [about] what to do on a political level regarding the effect of TV in Bhutan.
Did you have difficulty returning to the Western world (of technology and media) after shooting Happiness? Did you notice any changes to your own life, anything affected by the experience in Bhutan?
I don’t have any problems returning to the Western world after these long and distant shootings, as it meant returning to my family and my three kids; [being away from them] is the most difficult aspect of my work. Regarding technology, for a while I’ve been trying to challenge my relationship to this even if I’m definitely addicted to all these tools, I’m working on trying to change that…
Given there could be perceived to be a critical view of television in the film, why did you want to present Happiness on public TV?
This is a regular question which I do receive in festivals: “Your film is quite critical to television and nevertheless you are funded and broadcasted by television. Why is this?” I think that television itself is not the problem; like many other things, it should never have been partly privatized or obliged to compete with private channels which is not a fair competition.
What are your three favorite films?
The 400 Blows (F. Truffaut); Amarcord (Fellini); L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni). [Editor’s note: Balmes’ first documentary Beyond the Clouds was a study of the Italian director Antonioni, and played at the American Film Festival of Los Angeles and the Venice Film Festival.]
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
My friend’s Victor Kossakovsky’s 10 rules are I think the best advice of all:
1. Don’t film if you can live without filming.
2. Don’t film if you want to say something – just say it or write it.
Film only if you want to show something, or you want people to see something. This concerns both the film as a whole and every single shot within the film.
3. Don’t film, if you already knew your message before filming – just become a teacher. Don’t try to save the world. Don’t try to change the world. Better if your film will change you. Discover both the world and yourself whilst filming.
4. Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art. Film when you hate and love at the same time.
5. You need your brain both before and after filming, but don’t use your brain during filming. Just film using your instinct and intuition.
6. Try to not force people to repeat an action or words. Life is unrepeatable and unpredictable. Wait, look, feel, and be ready to film using your own way of filming. Remember that the very best films are: unrepeatable. Remember that the very best films were based on unrepeatable shots. Remember that the very best shots capture unrepeatable moments of life with an unrepeatable way of filming.
7. Shots are the basis of cinema. Remember that cinema was invented as one single shot – documentary, by the way – without any story. Or story was just inside that shot. Shots must first and foremost provide the viewers with new impressions that they never had before.
8. Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots. Then, form a dramatic structure of your film using the changes to their feelings.
9. Documentary is the only art where every aesthetical element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used aesthetically. Try to remain human, especially whilst editing your films. Maybe, nice people should not make documentaries.
10. Don’t follow my rules. Find your own rules. There is always something that only you can film and nobody else.
What projects are you working on next?
I’m developing different stories but like baby blues, it always takes me some time to recover from a film and to be able to move on to the next one…
Learn more about Happiness on Independent Lens.