Thursday, July 25, 2024

‘Are you rich in goats?’: chronicling the extraordinary work of Bhutan’s ‘happiness surveyors’

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How often do you get angry? Are you prone to envy? Are you rich in goats? These are the questions Amber Kumar Gurung is employed by the Bhutan government to ask its citizens.

Along with his colleague, fellow “happiness surveyor” Guna Raj Kuikel, he then calculates each subject’s general wellbeing, assigns them a score out of 10 and feeds it into the country’s gross national happiness index.

This singular man and his peculiar profession are now the subject of an eye-opening and frequently very funny new documentary, Agent of Happiness, by directors Arun Bhattarai who is from Bhutan, and Dorottya Zurbó from Hungary.

The pair shot Gurung as he went about his work, while also on the lookout for colourful interviewees. They found a widower who believes his beloved wife has been reincarnated (pretty chipper), a beautiful transgender dancer (depressed), a social-media-obsessed teen with an alcoholic mother (stricken) and a rich farmer with three wives (smug).

We watch as wife number one weeps as she talks about how abusive her husband can be. Then all three women start insulting him: “His belly is getting bigger”, “Yeah, his ass shrank, though.”

Bhattarai and Zurbó recently invited all the subjects to a screening. Didn’t the farmer get angry when he saw his segment? “No,” says an amused Zurbó, “he was so arrogant, he didn’t understand the film.” They “dared” to shoot the scenes in the first place, continues Zurbó, because they sensed the farmer’s power was on the wane. “When the women were very young,” says Bhattarai, “obviously the man was dominant. But over the years, the three of them built a sisterhood together. Now he’s in the minority.”

Meanwhile, Gurung, who is single and lives with his mother, is struggling with his own happiness. As well as being responsible for a frail parent, the fortysomething is in a bind because he’s ethnic Nepalese, which means that, since the 1990s, he’s been stripped of his citizenship rights and can’t leave the country.

This means he can’t travel to Australia with Sarita, a demurely pragmatic student obsessed with Instagram, who he’d like to marry.

Bhattarai, like Gurung, is from the ethnic Nepalese community and struggled to get his own citizenship papers. This commonality oiled the wheels with Gurung. “Often we don’t have deep political conversations in Bhutan. It’s still a taboo to talk about citizenship. But I could talk about anything with Amber.”

They are also both still living with their parents – and under considerable pressure to marry and move out.

‘We don’t often have deep political conversations in Bhutan’ … Agent of Happiness. Photograph: undefined/Publicity image

Thanks to Covid, the documentary took an excruciatingly long time to complete. In the middle, Bhattarai directed a 22-minute short, Mountain Man, about scientist Phuntsho Tshering (an old school friend) who measures the impact of global warming on Bhutan’s lakes and glaciers. Tshering has an 11-year-old daughter, Yangchen, who’s fascinated by her father’s expeditions. In the movie, parent and child FaceTime each other and chat about the physical dangers Tshering faces as he treks through the ravishing-looking Himalayas, as well as scary stuff taking place in the family home (his wife is prone to seizures).

Bhattarai was “very surprised” when Mountain Man won a prize at the DOC NYC film festival, thereby qualifying for the 2025 Oscars. He says, without bitterness, that the chances of it actually being nominated are “extremely slim”, because it “doesn’t have a big distributor or producer behind it to fund its campaign”. That said, he was “super-thrilled that the jury at NYC understood the essence of the story. Stories about climate change so often try to give the broader picture. But climate change is also very personal.”

There’s an especially upsetting moment where Yangchen’s voice drops to a whisper as she discusses the fact that many people in their village now believe her father is causing the floods and changing weather patterns. In their eyes, he is desecrating the mountain (even Tshering himself, as a devout Buddhist, has doubts about his mission). Far from being viewed as a selfless hero, this man is on the verge of becoming a pariah.

“There are so many ironies in his position,” says Bhattarai. “So much internal conflict. And I think that’s why viewers relate to him. All of us have two sides to us. We are all vulnerable people.”

‘We understand each other, from half-sentences’ … Dorottya Zurbó and Arun Bhattarai at Sundance this year. Photograph: Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock

The directors included. How do they pay their bills? Zurbó concedes that making documentaries is “never financially rewarding. You need to have a second profession. I teach a course on documentary film-making.”

“I do a bit of commercial work on the side,” says Bhattarai, before adding, a touch sheepishly: “Of course, it helps that I live with my parents.”

Collaboration helps, they say. “Documentary-making is a very lonely profession,” says Zurbó, “I think it’s actually impossible to do it alone. Co-direction somehow increases and doubles your creativity. We have the same references. We understand each other, from half-sentences.”

They are definitely in-sync. When I ask which dead person they’d most like to meet through reincarnation, Zurbó says: “I would choose my grandmother.” Bhattarai gasps: “Oh my God. This is so strange. That’s what I was about to say as well!”

They nod and laugh: happiness index high, despite the doomy subject.

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