'Happy' documentary argues that everyone can become happier

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 14 2012 7:33 p.m. MST

What makes people happy?

It's the question at the heart of filmmaker Roko Belic’s new documentary feature film simply — but appropriately — titled “Happy.”

The film was originally inspired by a 2005 New York Times article “A New Measure of Well-Being from a Happy Little Kingdom” by Andrew C. Revkin in which the United States was ranked 23rd on a list of the happiest nations in the world. With much poorer countries like Iceland and Puerto Rico easily surpassing the U.S., "Happy" makes a compelling argument that once basic necessities like food and shelter are provided for, economic factors have relatively little to do with overall satisfaction in life.

Instead, using a balance of scientific research and fascinating human stories, the filmmakers explore some of the non-material roots of happiness, and in the process, show that while there isn’t a formula for it, everyone can become happier.

With subjects ranging from an Indian rickshaw driver to a family of crab-fishing Cajuns in the Louisiana bayou to an aging Brazilian surfer, the film benefits from the huge variety of experiences it examines.

Belic, whose 1999 documentary “Genghis Blues” was nominated for an Academy Award, never dwells on any topic for too long. Instead, the film jumps from country to country at a refreshingly brisk pace, and in so doing avoids the tedium sometimes associated with educational documentaries.

Ultimately, though, that quality — perhaps the documentary’s single biggest strength — also turns out to be one of its only real weaknesses. At a scant 75 minutes, there is just too much to say and not enough room to say it in.

Although this is as much a compliment as it is a criticism, many of the sub-topics the filmmakers touch on, often very briefly, are compelling enough in their own right that entire documentaries could easily be devoted to them.

One example is the recent Japanese phenomenon known as “karoushi” (literally, “dying from overwork”). Citing scientific research that argues one’s health is directly related to his or her happiness, the filmmakers contrast the alarming work situation in many Japanese cities — where “karoushi” is being listed as the legal cause of death with more and more frequency — with another Japanese oddity: a disproportionate number of centenarians in rural areas, especially on the island of Okinawa. As fascinating as this dichotomy is, however, it only makes up a small part of the 75-minute running time.

Because of this, “Happy” works best as an introduction to the subject, and it presents its information in a clear and appealing way that often belies the sheer quantity of stuff being thrown on the screen — data and stories culled from five continents over a period of four years.

Probably the best compliment that can be paid to “Happy,” however, is this: It is as enjoyable to watch as the name would imply. Similar to last year’s “Life in a Day,” “Happy” is brimming with positive energy and a sense of joy regarding the shared human experience. For many audience members, just sitting through the movie and engaging with the individual stories will likely make their day that much happier.

Screenings for "Happy" were recently held on Feb. 11, although none were held in Utah. The film can be seen on DVD or downloaded on iTunes. For more information, visit www.thehappymovie.com.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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