Bhutan village feels the power of TV
French film director Thomas Balmes, pictured during an event at the Apple Store Soho in New York, on April 26, 2010 - by Amy Sussman
"Happiness," a new documentary by the Frenchman Thomas Balmes, shines a light on the power and risks of the small screen.
In 1999, authorities in Bhutan -- which famously measures prosperity by gauging its citizens' happiness, not GDP -- decided, after much reflection, to allow television and the Internet into the tiny landlocked country sandwiched between China and India.
But the village of Laya, which is two days by foot from the nearest road, had to wait more than a decade more before electricity arrived.
That's when Balmes -- whose work is partly financed by TV companies and who previously had a hit with a documentary called "Babies" -- grasped the rare opportunity to observe the impact of television on a community that had never had it.
"The idea was to make a film about television. And I even thought for a time about coming to make it in the United States," he told AFP at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where the documentary had its release.
"I am constantly surprised by how few films there are about screens, whether smartphones, televisions or computers," he added.
"After hesitating over whether to make the film in a place where an enormous amount of television is watched, it occurred to me that obviously I should go to the opposite end of the scale. What better way to talk about television than by going somewhere where it doesn't exist?"
The documentary tells the story through the eyes of Peyangki, an eight-year-old who is "practically the only person who had never left the village. That made him even more of a virgin in terms of experiencing electricity and television," said Balmes.
Balmes wanted to show the transformative power in the village -- both positive and negative -- of a medium which is now ubiquitous in the developed world.
The filmmaker said he doesn't have a television set at home.
"The huge problem with television, even without talking about what's on it, is that it becomes an invasive force," he said.
"With 'Happiness,' I show... how naturally that is accepted... Today, if you go back to Laya, there isn't a child who plays bow and arrow in the street. They're all in front of the television, and don't do anything else.
"It's a complete mystery to me that we ask teachers for certain qualifications to educate our children, but we don't have the slightest worry about who makes the six or seven hours of television watched daily on average."
His film is visually sumptuous.
"I wanted to be a photographer, so images have always been important to me," he said.
"For 25 years... my aim has been to use the specificity of the documentary medium, which is above all about images, and to talk as little as possible."
"Babies," which followed one year in the lives of babies around the world, took this to extremes by having no dialogue whatsoever.
"I didn't want to do the same thing with 'Happiness,' but there is still the idea of making a film which can be understood without any commentary at all," Balmes said.
"In terms of the images themselves, we used fixed lenses as in cinema, which are rarely used for documentaries. They give a visual feel which is closer to fiction than documentary," he added.