– Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó’s documentary takes us across Bhutan for a door-to-door happiness survey
When taking the measure of a country, simply asking its assorted citizens, “Are you happy?” on camera may seem simplistic or reductive, yet it cuts to the chase. It was the starting point of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s landmark docu-anthropological study Chronicle of a Summer – the “summer” of 1960 in Paris – but with diverse, tricky speculations and interpretations emerging from that short prompt.
Applying the scientific method to human emotions is also at the core of Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó’s second feature, Agent of Happiness, premiering in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance. Bhutan, the Himalayan country bordering Nepal and China, is famed for its philosophy of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH); developed by its fourth king, this marker of the country’s development – a counterpart to, or even a winking replacement for, GDP – determines national policy and is promoted in their own media with propagandistic pride. Yet is happiness so quantifiable, like determining one’s blood-sugar level? Weren’t Rouch and Morin more concerned with the encounters’ spontaneity, mediated by their camera’s gaze, and not only numeric data?
Bhattarai and Zurbó alight for most of the duration on Amber Kumar Gurung, a happiness “agent” dispatched to numerous and diverse parts of the country, where he subjects each participant to 148 different questions, with many recorded with a value between one and ten. They range from personality-test fodder – your sense of satisfaction, belonging or anger – to measuring wellbeing by the number of cows and donkeys owned (many of the rural homeowners do agricultural work). Whilst we may have questions about rigour and sample sizes, the directors are able to expose a certain faultiness: namely that Bhutan – which only “opened up” on becoming a constitutional monarchy in 2008 – remains a starkly patriarchal society, where women suffer as the menfolk brag about their livestock numbers and retain complete economic agency.
A sub-narrative gradually arises as Amber’s own life struggles are revealed, with the filmmakers nudging towards the obvious irony of an unhappy tallier of others’ happiness. He’s depressed to continue living with his mother past the age of 40 and is scanning the apps for a potential wife (and not seeing his matches fulfilling a function beyond that role), whilst also reapplying for Bhutanese citizenship owing to his family’s status as Nepalese refugees. With the film’s closing titles purporting a 93.6% happiness rate from the last survey, there’s a gentle but forceful bravery in the directors’ attempt to puncture this false impression.
Still, that light-fingered approach occasionally comes across as timidity. Agent of Happiness’s visuals play into and retain the exoticism with which the region is commonly depicted for outsiders: those National Geographic-ready panoramas of steep hills and ornate, symmetrical shrines. The directors clearly appreciate the well-meaning rationale behind the GNH; disappointingly, their images reinforce the aura of tranquil contentment that Bhutan’s leaders want as their PR push to the rest of the world.