Roko Belic Talks Happy Documentary

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Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Roko Belic (Genghis Blues, Beyond the Call) has devoted the last four years to answering a single question: What makes people happy? He took a small crew of producers and filmmakers to 14 different countries, combining psychological research on happiness with individual experiences in an effort to lift the veil on the concept. The footage he compiled will be released as a feature documentary, the aptly-titled Happy, which could see a film festival screening in the next four to five months.

“In some ways [happiness] might seem like a small subject, or a humongous subject, but I thought of it as a humongous subject, so I went around the world to make the film,” Belic tells Paste.

Happy was inspired by a New York Times article Tom Shadyac (The Nutty Professor, Bruce Almighty, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) shared with Belic that ranked countries by the happiness of their citizens. “What Tom learned from this article is that despite the fact that America is one of the richest countries in the world, it’s nowhere near the happiest,” Belic says. Shadyac told Belic he often witnessed this paradox in Hollywood where many people “who seemed to have a lot going for them…weren’t as happy as the gardeners who were tending to their flowers in their back lawns.” Shadyac was so compelled by the contradictory correlation between material wealth and happiness, he funded the majority of Belic’s film out of pocket.

After traveling to Denmark, Namibia, Scotland, China, Kenya, Brazil, Japan, Bhutan and India, Belic says what he and his crew discovered was astonishing. He spent a few weeks in the slums of Kolkata, India with positive psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener (“the Indiana Jones of happiness research”) and “the poorest of the poor,” and found a community whose dependence on one another transcended their poverty. “Despite the fact that they live in little huts made of bamboo sticks covered in plastic tarps and plastic bags; despite the fact that there’s open sewage running in front of where they sleep; despite the fact that they have no income for medical care or schooling or for anything in excess of subsistence living, they’re as happy as the average American,” Belic says. “What I saw in the slum that I see missing in many American neighborhoods is a real, genuine sense of camaraderie and a bond among the people who live there.”

Ed Diener, who Belic credits as the first researcher to contribute to the theory and practice of positive psychology, told the filmmaker that, after 30 years of studying happiness, he discovered a common trait in those who appeared to be most happy: meaningful relationships. “Even though people in [Kolkata] aren’t related by blood, they look out for each other’s kids; they worry about each other when someone is sick,” Belic says. “They really come to each other’s aid in a way that I feel is becoming less common as our society grows more and more in a direction that values individual freedom and individual expressions of lifestyle where people end up building fences around each house and don’t know the neighbors who they’ve lived next to for 10 years.”

When Belic visited Okinawa, Japan, he discovered a similar communal bond. During World War II, the island was burned to the ground and hundreds were killed, but the community saw past the devastation and used every resource it had to rebuild its villages. Belic says the majority of the people he encountered in Okinawa were in their nineties and still had the energy to dance and sing. “Everybody there seems to be taken care of,” he says. One of the women Belic interviewed had lost her entire family during the war, but, surrounded by 15 of her best friends, was beaming with happiness. “If you don’t have anything, what you do have is people, and that’s actually everything,” Belic says. “John Lennon said love is all you need, and we’re discovering through scientific data and research that, in fact, for happiness, that may be true.”

Since shooting the film, Belic says he has made significant changes in his own life that have helped make him a happier person. “It may sound really quaint, but I’ve started taking care of myself better,” he says. “What I learned from talking to two neuroscientists is that physical aerobic exercise is one of the keys to our happiness…it maintains the health of our dopamine system, which is the neurological system that gives us feelings of pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, all those things.”

Belic gets his physical aerobic exercise by surfing, a hobby he had given up before making the film. He even left his San Francisco home and moved into a trailer park on a beach in Malibu to make it more convenient to indulge in the pastime. “I have no problem living in a trailer park, it’s a beautiful place,” he says. “There’s a real sense of community here where I know almost everybody in the park, and there are 200 houses here. Literally, within the first two weeks of moving here, I met more people than I did in 10 years of having a house in the suburbs of San Francisco.”

In order to complete Happy, Belic is currently seeking donations through Kickstarter. He needs $33,000 to fund the composition and recording of an original musical score (which Mark Adler of Food, Inc. fame has already signed on to produce) as well as graphics and animation for the film. Those who contribute more than $10 to the documentary’s production will be able to view the film online prior to its official release. “It’s a project that’s really meant for people and I love that people are involved in making it,” Belic says. “I really love that we’re able to connect with the audience in a direct way where they can participate in creating something that, hopefully, they will benefit from watching.”