The mountainous kingdom of Bhutan was closed to visitors until 1974 and only slowly has allowed increasing numbers of tourists to enter, fearful that their impacts may harm the country’s Gross National Happiness levels. This revelatory, visually stunning, at times dramatic documentary follows a team of adventurers, sponsored by Bhutan’s Olympic committee, as they hike and bike across the entire country.
How were you lucky enough to get tapped to document this journey?
For many years I have crafted short documentaries for social and environmental innovators to help them build support for their work. But my dream has always been to make a feature. I was connected to this team of veteran athletes making this unprecedented crossing of Bhutan, and after a bit of reading about Bhutan, I was immediately enraptured. Bhutan has this powerful mythos as one of the last great Shangri-Las, and a place that very few foreign filmmakers have had the opportunity to document. I was daunted by the physical and logistical challenge of the journey, but enamored by the idea of Gross National Happiness — and knew I had to go.
Were you ever personally scared for yourself or, perhaps more so, for your equipment?
This was an incredibly challenging film to shoot. We had stretches of 10 days at 15,000-plus feet without access to power, so we strapped solar panels on our support donkeys to keep our gear charged. After a 12-hour day on the trail, we’d have to start offloading and media managing all of our footage. It was craziness. A bridge outing meant we had to take more challenging route through the first part of the journey, which made for a lot of wear and tear on our bodies and equipment. But it never got the point of being scared for my well-being.
Did you essentially complete the journey yourself?
Every mile the expedition team trekked, we had to trek as well. And because we had to get in position to grab shots, it meant constantly leapfrogging the team, getting in position, waiting for them to pass, then catching up again. To be frank, I’m not sure how we managed it. For the biking portions the film team jumped in a support vehicle, which also allowed us to track with their biking.
Do you think tradition will defeat modernity in Bhutan, or will modernity eventually win over? Or can there be a balance?
Bhutan is a predominantly Buddhist country, and in Buddhism there is this idea of the “middle path,” which basically translates to moderation. At a time when there are a lot of extremes, it takes a great deal of wisdom to find balance, both in our lives as individuals and as a society collectively. So Bhutan is doing its best to preserve the traditional values that it holds dear while embracing what modernity has to offer. It requires constant negotiation and trade-off.
Bhutan’s policy of Gross National Happiness is really their compass in this respect; it helps them navigate pretty uncharted waters for which there aren’t a lot of great models.
Did you see much abject poverty there, or does their system seem to work?
Bhutan definitely struggles with poverty. It is still very much a “developing” country — though, in some senses, using the term “developing” is deceptive because it implies that their destination is us, to become “developed” in the same sense that we are. But I think Bhutan is being very careful insofar as the government is attempting to fire up their economy and help to meet the basic needs of its people while avoiding the chronic levels of stress, loneliness, suicide, and environmental degradation we’re facing in the West. This is part of what their tourist “tariff” is about; it helps them fund universal free education, free healthcare, and other social programs for the Bhutanese.
Is Gross National Happiness an idea that can be exported to the West?
It can most definitely be exported. On one hand, Gross National Happiness points to a policy framework implemented on the level of government, with 9 domains, 33 sub-indicators, annual polls, etc. that is in fact replicable. We’ve seen some movement towards the adoption of the GNH framework within the international community in the U.K., Costa Rica, and even at the level of the United Nations — though I think that Gross National Happiness has the most promise as a grassroots movement.
Beyond the slogan, Gross National Happiness basically boils down to creating human institutions that moderate the drive for material development or financial reward with human needs — be they those of our psychological well-being, our community, or our environment. This transformation in how we think is expressed in the sustainability movement, in rise of Corporate Social Responsibility, in the local food movement, in the sharing economy, and in many other layers of society.
There was decent human drama in the film. Were you worried it would not happen?
I definitely didn’t set out to capture human drama in the film, though I’ve always found conflict to be a powerful mirror and window into our values. While we were filming I began to notice the parallels between the conflict emerging within the team — which really centers on not having time for the things that truly matter most in our lives — and Bhutan’s conflict. With the introduction of television and the internet in Bhutan in the late ‘90s, Bhutan has emerged from this timeless slumber, and is suddenly grappling with all of the challenges of modernity. Bhutan’s solution is to develop more slowly — even if it means that they don’t modernize as quickly as neighboring countries.
Have you been back to Bhutan since?
Yes! I made a return trip a year after my initial trip to do more filming and to volunteer with the Bhutanese Center for Media and Democracy to teach a workshop on documentary filmmaking. I had time to dig a bit deeper in the country’s spirituality, including a journey East to meet with a revered lama and see this 187-foot-tall statue of Guru Rinpoche he was building. It was a powerful trip.
What is your next project?
I’m still fascinated by our collective quest for happiness and well-being. I’m working on a “behind-the-scenes” version of the film that tells the story of my return trip to Bhutan and digs a bit deeper into Gross National Happiness and how it’s being applied here in the West — though it may just be a DVD extra. The working title for that project is “The Happiest Place.” I’m also digging back into collaborating with world-changing organizations to tell stories that expand our notion of what is possible.