Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness": Film Review

"Gross National Happiness" increasingly grows familiar as a catchphrase to sum up Bhutan's ambitions to orient its Himalayan fastness within harmonious precepts as taught by Buddhism and shared equitably among its peoples to assure mutual comfort, educational advancement, and spiritual progress. This project comprises this one-hour video produced by Thomas Vendetti and John Wehrheim. With Dr. Vendetti's experience with mental health outreach for the Hopi and now the residents of Maui, and Mr. Wehrheim's career as a hydroponics engineer who has worked in Hawai'i and Bhutan, one understands their professional connections that linked them to explore this kingdom's initiative under its benign monarchy to promote entry into the modern world while keeping traditional lifestyles, and as they are perched between a covetous China and a teeming India.

This geographical situation demands caution. Its ecological treasures require caretaking. Compared to the recent fate of other Buddhist realms, Tibet, Ladakh, Mustang, and Bhutan's neighbor, Sikkim, the need to preserve ancient wisdom, careful tourism, and economic growth makes this land a unique case study, the last jurisdiction where Tantric Buddhism enters into the governance of the nation.

Part 1 introduces the environmental imperative, and then segues into culture, water, and governance. The feel is very much what you'd see on public television or as an educational film. That is, there's no dramatization or re-enactments, no need to pump up an inherently worthy subject. The Prime Minister, Lyinpo Yeshey Zimba, and a musician-Performing Arts director, Jigme Drukpa, take turns narrating their country's plans. The Dalai Lama's prescriptions for happiness append this as a short feature. All agree: the pleasures of this world can be beneficial, but their best attainment is by that which limits greed and sustains nature.

I watched this prefaced by a bit of familiarity from books. (See my reviews of Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli, Beyond the Sky and the Earth by Jamie Zeppa, So Close to Heaven: the Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas by Barbara Crossette, Bradley Mayhew's Lonely Planet and Francoise Pommaret's Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (Odyssey Guides) guidebook.) But like most Westerners, I lacked direct sight of this place. Color within native costumes, the architecture sustained in the old style for all new buildings, and the soft scenes of mist and scree all unfurled. Robert C. Stone's cinematography conveys some of the vastness of high peaks and narrow valleys, ravines and rivers cutting into sheer stone.

Out of this landscape, after learning of John Wehrheim's expertise (besides the script, he's written and photographed well his 1991-2006 stints there in "Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness"--some of its evocative black-and-white images enrich the film), I can better relate to why hydro-electric energy takes up part 3 of the running time. Its facilities largely out of sight underground and in narrow gorges, they now harness but 5% of the potential power. More than the zero of a few years ago, but far more could be used to sell off to India, neatly capturing the snowmelt and profiting the inhabitants of a land needing revenue with so little arable land in such a vertically dominant spot.

My wife wondered as she watched if there was more to Bhutan's story; she hinted it seemed too simple. Hints of tension arise elsewhere; part 2 mentions that the advent of television in 1999 sparked a rise in crime and strife, so this piqued my curiosity. It's natural not to want to highlight this in a film about the pursuit of happiness, but more might have been given to the problems that modernity brings, as well as the trap that Bhutan may feel as it's aiming for freedom while positioned between two superpowers bent on making this century their own in a globalized, more heartless, system.

The 2008 film ends in an open-ended manner. The four parts or "pillars" of the Happiness plan along the Middle Path of moderation preached by the Buddha organize it, and after each, some music is shown. Western musicians join in as a celebration for the King's birthday occurs, and this concludes the documentary. I was not sure why the film wrapped itself up when it did, but this may suggest the striving of the kingdom will always be softened by the chance for festivity and community, aspects again necessary along with electrification, healthcare, literacy, and education (delightful that birth control is often taught to villagers by monks--a great touch!) as must-haves on the four-part plan. (Amazon US, 10-24-12; film's website. See also his book of photos and narrative on "Taylor Camp")

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