Thomas Balmès is an independent documentary director and producer whose films, often shot in remote locations, present new angles to noteworthy events, inviting us to question perspective and truth. Previous documentaries include Bosnia Hotel (about the Bosnian war from the point of view of Kenyan warriors), Maharadjah Burger (about mad-cow disease from the Indian viewpoint) and Christ Comes to the Papuans (about conversion to Christianity in Papua New Guinea). His last film, Babies, offered glimpses of childhood from around the world in countries such as Japan, Mongolia, Namibia, and the United States.
Balmès did most of the shooting on Happiness, sharing DP credit with Nina Bernfeld. He uses hypnotic images and deft, almost magical direction to capture a turning point in history. In 1999, King Jigme Wangchuck cautiously approved the use of televisions and the Internet in Bhutan, hoping it would benefit the “gross national happiness” of his country. Balmès documents the last days of life before the shift. In a remote village called Laya where there isn’t even electricity (yet) and told through the eyes of an eight-year-old monk named Peyangki, the seduction of technology takes root. Happiness is ultimately a meditation on change and a mirror for our relationship with modernization.
What stood out the most to me is the beauty of Happiness. It almost felt like a narrative, a fiction film, in the way it was shot. Can you talk a little about that?
My previous film Babies liberated me from the idea that documentary should have a specific form. Working on a non-verbal film, I do trust more than before in the possibility of telling a story with very little dialogue, mainly through visuals, which is what I tried to do with this film. I think that documentaries suffer from cultural dogmatism of what should be done or not, unlike fiction. With this film I tried as much as I could to use the tools of fiction to tell a true story, with true characters and real situations. I do hate repeating myself and I find it quite exciting to search for new forms of cinematic writing.
My initial objective was to make a film about how television would entirely transform a society. That is how I ended up traveling to one of the most remote villages of Bhutan. My encounter with the Laya villagers and Peyangki was very visual, since I couldn’t understand a single word of their language. I had a feeling that Peyangki expressed so much by his simple presence. By telling a story with very little dialogue, using silence instead, and very little action, with careful cinematography, I wanted a formal treatment that is exactly the opposite of what has now become the common language for television.
Can you talk more about the cinematography, how your use of lenses affected the way the story came across?
We only worked with prime lenses. We never used any zoom. We very close to the characters at all times, so no need for zoom. Sometimes I would tell the people involved, “Wait one moment before you continue your conversation because I need to either change position or change the lens.” This is something some directors would consider impossible to do, but I don’t have any problem with that as long as I do not feel it’s affecting the continuation of a conversation or the action. Depending on where you shoot, and what kind of culture the people have with the camera and with the concept of a film, it’s totally different.
“I wanted a formal treatment that is exactly the opposite of what has now become the common language for television.”
How would you say it worked in Bhutan with their culture?
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