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“A Symphony of Echoing Voices”: Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó on ‘Agent of Happiness’

By Lauren Wissot

BTS shot of four figures against a mountainous backdrop.

Dorottya Zurbó, Amber Kumar Gurung, Guna Raj Kuikel, and Arun Bhattarai behind the scenes of Agent of Happiness. Courtesy of DDA.

As a clueless American not previously aware that “Gross National Happiness” is a measurable index in the Himalayan country of Bhutan, I did a double-take reading the synopsis of Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó’s Sundance-debuting Agent of Happiness, thinking that “GNH” might be the premise for some sort of dystopian fiction. However, I then realized that Bhattarai, a native of Bhutan, and the Hungarian Zurbó are the co-directors behind the critically-acclaimed, IDFA-premiering 2017 doc The Next Guardian. Like that Bhutan-set feature, which pits a Buddhist monastery caretaker’s expectations for his two kids against their own very different hopes, Agent of Happiness is an up-close character study in contrasts. In this case, we’re introduced to the titular agent Amber, a longing-to-be-married, middle-aged guy who lives with his elderly mom and works for a government that refuses to grant him citizenship since he’s a member of the Nepali minority. As Amber and his easygoing colleague Guna Raj travel throughout the tiny nation conducting the mandated Gross National Happiness survey, posing the same set of questions to rural farmers and city folk alike—from how angry or depressed they are to whether they own sheep—unexpected revelations unspool apace. Even as the key to happiness remains as stubbornly elusive as the keys to this “Partly Free” (per the Freedom House index) kingdom.

Prior to the premiere of Agent of HappinessDocumentary reached out over email to the co-directors to learn all about their stranger-than-fiction collaboration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: Can you discuss the genesis of this doc? Has it been in the works since your 2017 film The Next Guardian?

ARUN BHATTARAI and DOROTTYA ZURBO: We’ve been working together for the last 11 years, right from the time we met at the DocNomads Joint Masters program in Europe, where we studied together. The seeds of this new film emerged from our experiences in the last decade while we were creating films together in Bhutan, sharing a common cinematic vision shaped by our multicultural dialogue.

The actual idea for Agent of Happiness was born out of an accidental encounter we had while making The Next Guardian in a tiny village in Eastern Bhutan, when two happiness surveyors walked into the house of the family we were shooting with. One of them was Amber, who later became our main protagonist. Witnessing how they conducted the national happiness survey, we were immediately drawn in. They were very thoroughly asking hundreds of questions from the head of the family and then converting the replies into numerical numbers. Everything from feelings, dreams, and subjective state of mind to household items. However, what really struck us was the genuineness with which Amber was actually listening to his respondents. His warm personality quickly made people forget the official nature of the interview. He turned the situation into a conversation beyond the survey.

We couldn’t help but stay in touch with him. As we began to meet more and get to know him better, we learned that he was measuring the happiness of other people as a temporary job, while deep inside he was lonely and seeking love. At that moment we decided we would like to accompany him on his official survey trips, and follow his own search for happiness and that of the people he will meet on the road. This was the starting point from which we began to develop the idea of creating a multi-portrait documentary based on the happiness survey, and to contrast the official governmental statistics with what people really feel.

D: Considering the governmental grip on media in Bhutan (as is the case in Dorottya’s native Hungary), I’m curious to hear how that affected production. Did you have to navigate some sort of monarchical bureaucracy in order to follow the agents? Were folks wary of even participating?

AB and DZ: Not all matters in Bhutan have a governmental grip on them. We didn’t have to go through any bureaucratic hassles to follow the happiness surveyors. Since we’d already made a film together in Bhutan we could show it to the people at the Happiness Center as evidence that we weren’t doing a journalistic piece but a creative documentary—one that doesn’t dismiss the happiness survey, but instead focuses on the personal stories of everyday people.

The bigger challenge for us was actually following the happiness agents on the bumpy and unpredictable roads of Bhutan. While filming the survey situations, we were also trying to maintain the authenticity of the survey itself, which required us to explain to everyone that we were just silent observers. People were not wary about participating in it. On the contrary, many people saw the survey as an opportunity to share their feelings, and to talk about emotions they otherwise wouldn’t have. 

D: Can you talk a bit about the music and sound design? The powerful “portrait” sequence at the end set to the mix of all those different voices is almost a song in itself.

AB and DZ: We knew we really wanted to work with the voices of the people being surveyed, and all those confessions and contemplations that they give as replies to the questions asked by the agents.

We also knew that we wanted to use these voices separately from the image, as an associative tool to step into the lives of people and give them space to express their feelings in a more poetic way. The voiceover became the transition between the survey situation and their inner contemplation. And that last sequence became the culmination of this cinematic language.

From the very beginning, we had this idea of wanting to create a symphony of echoing voices in order to express the diversity of dreams and feelings—what is really behind these numbers, the happiness index statistics that the state calculates. In doing so, we can express what happiness means to individuals as opposed to a nation. For this sequence, we worked with our amazing editor Péter Sass, music composer Ádám Balázs, and sound designers Rudolf Várhegyi and Tamás Bohács to create the feeling of a choir that echoes in the mountains.

D: How did you gain the trust of those who did ultimately agree to go on camera—especially the most vulnerable, like the woman coerced into marriage and the anxious trans woman? Did you take certain precautions to ensure everyone’s safety?

AB and DZ: Firstly, the trust and transparent communication between our small crew (Arun did the cinematography while Dorottya handled sound alongside our production manager Suraj) and our protagonists and episodic characters were key to making this film in a safe way. We explicitly notified everyone as to what the film was about, and they had the right to change their mind about participating. We always listened to their requests in order to make them feel safe. Our main approach was to ensure that we never persuaded anybody to take part—it had to come from within and at their own pace. With this attitude, we might have lost some participants, but that guaranteed that whoever agreed to be part of the project was ready for it.

Also, while following our happiness agents we always asked for everyone’s consent before they actually started conducting the survey. We carefully explained our reason for filming and asked those being surveyed to stop us at any time if certain questions became too sensitive for them. Surprisingly, people were always very open with us. They expressed gratitude for the questions and the opportunity to express themselves because they were never asked about these things before. 

Some of the respondents we encountered (Yangka, Tashi, Tshering and Dechen) ended up becoming side characters in the film. We met with them while following Amber and Gunaraj as they traveled and conducted the survey. We spent a lot of that time just explaining the nature of the filmmaking process. We also screened The Next Guardian as an example of the type of film we were doing because there is no exposure to art cinema or creative documentaries in Bhutan. In addition, we prepared them for what comes after the film is released—that the audience might connect with their personal stories, and in turn they might draw greater attention within their communities. 

Bhutan is a small traditional society where age-old community values are still very much alive. Making a film here also means being a part of the community, and participating in the daily lives of our characters, from festivals and celebrations to rituals of birth and death. This sense of community builds a lifelong bond of friendship and trust. Which is also the basis for the making of this film. 

D: Have all the characters seen the final film? What have the reactions been like?

AB and DZ: Yes, after we finished the film we traveled back to those villages where our characters live and screened the film for them. We were very touched by their reactions as they expressed what the filming process meant to them. Amber, as well as Yangka, Tashi, Tshering, and Dechen, see the film as a memory of the relationships they share with their loved ones and how they have found happiness in their compassion towards them despite adversities.

Additionally, we are planning to do a Bhutanese premiere where we invite a wider audience to the film. We hope to generate discussions about some of the social issues the film addresses to create greater awareness and dialogue.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine) and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.