It will not only be Pawo Choyning Dorji and his films that the Oscars will remember when talking about Bhutan. 38-year-old Arun Bhattarai’s short film, “Mountain Man”, won the grand prize at DOC NYC 2023, the biggest documentary film festival in America, which has made it qualify for the 2025 Oscars. This makes the “Mountain Man,” the first Bhutanese documentary which has qualified for the Oscars.
This is just the beginning. Recently, Bhattarai has had yet another shot at fame, with “Agent of Happiness,” which has premiered at The Sundance Film Festival to houseful audiences and is due to have theatrical releases and festival screenings all over the world.
Bhattarai co-directed the film with his Hungarian collaborator Dorottya Zurbo and equates the film to “a poetic road movie,” that follows a happiness agent, Amber, who goes around the country to do the happiness survey. This takes him into the lives and the inner aspects of several people he encounters. While Amber’s job is to measure how happy people are, deep inside he is lonely. “This gives the absurd dramatic tension to the film: a happiness agent who is in search of his happiness,” says Bhattarai, adding that the film is a bittersweet exploration of what happiness means to individuals, as opposed to what it means to a nation. “On a broader level it questions happiness rankings and the sheer idea of measuring it, but on a personal level it searches for happiness in the smallest of places,” he says.
“I feel very proud that it got selected to the Sundance Film Festival because I grew up watching independent art films that were selected for Sundance. It is the most prestigious film festival in the US and one of the top 5 film festivals in the world,” he says, adding this is the first Bhutanese film to be selected. “I am very proud. I hope this can inspire other Bhutanese storytellers to make films that are accessible to a larger global audience and tell ‘different’ stories that are different from the mainstream commercial movies.”
Bhattarai says that the film was inspired by an encounter he and Zurbo had while working on a previous film. “We were filming in Bumthang sometime in 2016 when we met two temporary happiness surveyors working for the erstwhile ‘Centre for Happiness’ in Bumthang. They did the GNH survey with me and even though I must have thrown some subjective numbers at them as answers, I couldn’t help but contemplate my happiness more deeply during the encounter,” Bhattarai reminisces, adding that it was then that they thought it would be interesting to look behind the numbers and enter the lives of different people through a happiness surveyor.
“As filmmakers, we were interested to investigate the dreams, desires, and emotions of Bhutanese from different walks of life and see what lies behind the statistics. We wanted to make a film after watching which people will start questioning what truly makes them happy. In our fast-paced, desire-driven, consumerist world this film can inspire us to appreciate life with more modesty, teach us how to take the everyday struggle with ease, how to value our close relationships or the time we spend together – things that we often forget. We hope through the personal stories of our protagonists, this film can talk to anybody, reaching a wide range of audiences regardless of age, race, nation, and gender, because the film is about a basic human desire – how to be happy,” Bhattarai explains.
All these films come from a man who grew up in Eastern Bhutan in the early nineties. Bhattarai’s tryst with films began after he studied video production and mass communication in India. He then joined Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) where he worked for over five years as a producer making documentaries. However, he found what he was destined for when he was selected for a documentary film directing Master called “Doc-Nomads,” a film school that takes place at three universities in Europe (Budapest, Brussels and Lisbon). “Here, I discovered ‘creative documentaries’ and found out that I wanted to move away from the regular TV documentary and make documentaries that cannot only be cinematic but also deeply layered and thought-provoking,” he says.
A different journey began and it saw Bhattarai co-directing his first feature-length documentary along with his classmate from Hungary, Dorottya Zurbo. It was “The Next Guardian” and was selected to be premiered at the biggest documentary film festival in the world, “International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam” in 2017. Since then, it has been screened at over 40 film festivals, and had theatrical releases and broadcasts on several international TV stations.
Bhattarai says it’s hard to predict the future of Bhutanese films and the industry. “Smaller, cheaper, digital equipment and access to on-line content did help us initially to make technically sound films. However, now I think even our audiences are getting tired of the same content. I feel we need more original voices within the industry who want to tell complex, critical stories,” he adds. He underlines that there are great filmmakers like Dechen Roder, Tashi Gyeltshen and Pawo Choyning Dorji who have had critical as well as commercial success at a global stage. “However, for the industry to grow, we need a collective movement. We need our audiences to be more cinema literate so that people appreciate true art and feel the need to go and watch films in cinemas. At the same time, we need more modern theatres and better-quality films,” he adds.
Talking about the strengths of Bhutanese films, he notes that Bhutanese are making films in a part of the globe that is still unknown to the outside world. “We still have beautiful human connections to our community and nature that could be a part of our storytelling.”
There are weaknesses, too. “The weakness of our films is the lack of originality. Even within a commercial film there is scope for good story telling and I feel that is unfortunately missing from our films. The modern Bhutanese viewer is getting a little tired of the same content. I also think our films are not accessible enough for audiences who are not Bhutanese. The Bhutanese market is so small but if we look beyond our borders, we have a huge global market,” he says.
He adds that ultimately it comes down to telling universal stories that can resonate with anyone, anywhere in the world. “We need to look beyond our borders. As filmmakers, we search for authentic human stories. I feel it’s important to show the deep human dramas behind everyday events, the dynamics of relationships, and the hidden, invisible faces of desires, dreams, and fears.”
Like other members of the film fraternity, Bhattarai has hopes from the new government. “I saw that this government has already promised to reduce/remove censorship which I think is a good thing. I don’t think we can censor anything in this day and age. We should instead invest in educating our audiences. I think a small funding for art films could help kick start the careers of many promising young people,” he underscores.
Bhattarai further believes that the government needs to start, fund, or encourage international film festivals or international film workshops within the country so that new Bhutanese talent is discovered, while local filmmakers find international investors.
Ugyen Tenzin from Thimphu