Imagine a country where happiness is the guiding principal of government. Imagine a people who see all life as sacred and the source of their happiness, a place with an abundance of clean and renewable energy, a nation committed to preserving its culture. Imagine a Kingdom where the King lives in a simple wooden cottage and judges his progress by the country’s “Gross National Happiness.” Where is this Shangri-La?
Bhutan. But can a place like Bhutan really exist? Can such ideals be realized? Can this small, geographically isolated country tucked away in the Himalayans truly protect its environment and culture as they open their doors to the West?”
The idea for shooting the documentary started over two years ago when filmmaker Tom Vendetti wrote a letter and proposal to the Royal Government of Bhutan asking if he could make a documentary about the country.
“I was always fascinated by Bhutan,” says Tom Vendetti. “When I was in Nepal in 1983, there was a buzz about this beautiful and isolated country called Bhutan but at that time is was not only expensive to get into the country but very few numbers of outsiders were permitted entry to visit. Many years later when I went to an exhibit of John Wehrheim’s captivating photography of Bhutan at the East-West Center on O’ahu, my interest was rekindled to learn more about this mysterious and intriguing land.”
To his amazement and joy, Tom received a fax six months later. “Your proposal has been accepted by the Bhutan government. When will you and your crew be coming to Bhutan?” With introductions and travel arrangements made by Thinley Choden of Bhutan Tours and Travels, Tom was initially given permission to document the country’s production of clean and sustainable energy with run of the river hydroelectric plants. As the proposal developed it became clear that there was a bigger story to be told, the concept of “Gross National Happiness”. With this in mind, Tom submitted a list of questions to the government that explored “Gross National Happiness” The questions were approved and interviews with the Prime Minister and other government officials scheduled. Some of the questions were political in nature, exploring Bhutan’s readiness to cautiously open its doors to the West.
After the documentary was given approval by the Kingdom of Bhutan, Tom Vendetti consulted extensively with Bhutan’s cultural experts to present Bhutan in an authentic, culturally appropriate manner, and to explore the four pillars or platforms of “Gross National Happiness” proposed by the government: (1) Economic development, (2) Environmental preservation, (3) Cultural promotion, and (4) Good governance.
“As a psychologist, I was fascinated by the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness,’ and I wanted to film in Bhutan because I thought their model to promote happiness could be one for the whole world to follow,” reflects Tom Vendetti. “I also thought it could be a great opportunity to have this message air here in the USA to make more people aware of Bhutan and its dedication to make its people happy.”
Tom immediately called his production crew to accompany him to Bhutan to document this remarkable country: Composers and musicians Paul Horn and Christopher Hedge, photographer John Wehrheim, Bob Stone (who previously edited a number of his documentaries) and Scott Dewar.
He and his crew filmed in Bhutan during the months of October and November, 2004, also filming a concert performed by Paul Horn, Christopher Hedge and Bhutanese musician Jigme Drukpa held on November 11,2004 in honor of the King and his birthday, the Royal Family and people of Bhutan. With over 60 hours of footage shot and stock footage presented to him by the Bhutan Broadcasting System, Tom Venedtti and his group returned to Maui to begin the post-production on the film.
“It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime and inspiring experience,” reflects Tom Vendetti. We were amazed at the joy and optimism of the people and the overwhelming support for their government and its ideals.”
The diverse people that comprise the country of Bhutan, a people never colonized or conquered, are united in a shared vision – a vision that the world is impermanent, fragile yet impenetrable, and that the sacred spirits living in all forms of life are the true source of the world’s wealth.
“Most Bhutanese are Buddhists, regard nature as a living, breathing entity and hold it precious and sacred,” he continues. Damaging nature, therefore, has its consequences. Because of their belief system, they have a very high regard and respect for the land and their environment.” Representative of this for him was their creation of hydroelectric plants in Bhutan. With loans from the government of India, Bhutan has built several mammoth underground hydroelectric plant. The Bhutanese pay less for electricity than any other nation in the world and produce so much power that most of this energy is exported to India financing the bulk of the government’s budget and providing free health care and education to every Bhutanese. All this achieved with run of the river hydro plants, sustainable energy without massive dams, deforestation or displacement of people.
“And what also struck me was the intelligence of the nation’s future, its young people, who are grounded in the Buddhists concepts of living a good, healthy and grounded life – taking the middle path,” he continues.
The concept of taking “the middle road” is one rooted in the Bhutanese view of the world, anchored in Tantric Buddhism and animistic Bon that sees nature as living mysticism. The natural world, mapped in their minds with deities, divinities and spirits, is a living system inseparable from themselves and not a disconnected resource to be plundered for unsustainable consumer goods.
The Buddha shared a simple message: happiness lies in the middle path. Neither overindulging in the world’s pleasures nor rejecting the world’s goodness can lead to enlightenment. Happiness can only be found by taking the middle path – the path that balances the needs of mankind with the powerful spirits of nature.
While Tom and his crew were in Bhutan the government was working towards a transition from kingdom to democracy having looked at over 50 constitutions of democracies around the world, extracting the best of all these constitutions for Bhutan.”
“It’s a lesson for all of us to learn and to model ourselves after,” concludes Tom Vendetti.