Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuk came up with the phrase in 1972 when he said that GNH is more important than Gross Domestic Product. The landlocked country with fractious giants China and India as its only neighbors, takes this philosophy seriously and there is an index to measure the populace’s collective well-being.
Sound Pictures’ documentary “Gross National Happiness,” directed by Arun Bhattarai (“The Next Guardian”) and produced by Noemi Szakonyi (“Her Mothers”), follows Happiness Agents Amar and Gunaraj, who work for the Ministry of Gross National Happiness and collect data for the Happiness Survey. In the process, the film will explore the social fabric of Bhutan and what happiness means to a nation.
The philosophy is something that Bhattarai grew up with and when he left the country for the first time he realized that the world knows Bhutan for it.
“I was often asked about GNH but I failed to explain or understand what it takes for a small country like Bhutan to shape its national identity based on happiness,” Bhattarai tells Variety. Because of its political and geographical isolation Bhutan is considered to be a mysterious country and is often fantasized about as the last Shangri-la. That’s why I thought, I must dig deeper and give a local insight into GNH through personal stories to show a more complex vision about Bhutan.”
“In the awakening of a new pandemic which is scrambling the world right now, it is important to produce stories with uplifting, heart-warming potential that reminds the audience of the real values of our lives,” adds Bhattarai. “I believe that is one of our responsibilities as artists.”
The film is budgeted at $160,000 of which a third has been secured so far. It has received development funding from the Catapult Film Fund (U.S.), DMZ Docs Fund (Korea), and the Hungarian Film Institute. And it hopes to close more deals at the the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), part of Hong Kong FilMart.
“FilMart helps us gain visibility, especially for a project that is coming from Bhutan,” Szakonyi told Variety. “We are still in development so we have a lot of possibility to collaborate with producers from around the world. We are also looking for film foundations and who can help us make a beautiful film.”
“Gross National Happiness” begins shooting this spring, followed by two more schedules in the summer and winter, followed by post production in Hungary in 2022, before hitting the global festival circuit.
Bhutan has a small film industry with breakout films including the oeuvre of monk Khyentse Norbu (“The Cup,” “Hema Hema”), Dechen Roder’s “Honeygiver Among The Dogs,” Bhattarai’s “The Next Guardian” and Tashi Gyeltsen’s “The Red Phallus.”
“It is very difficult to make a film in Bhutan today,” Bhattarai says. “Firstly there is no cultural funding in Bhutan and we always have to look for funding from outside the country. The market for the commercial film industry that is hugely influenced by Bollywood is also small because of a small population (750,000 people). There is no culture for watching creative documentaries or independent films in general so the market is almost non-existent for independent films.”
“For ‘The Next Guardian’ we took the film to different parts of Bhutan through a travelling cinema using our own projector and equipment and screening it for free to create a culture for creative documentaries,” says Bhattarai.