A Brazilian surfer finds all he needs in the waves in Roko Belic's 'Happy.'

Roko Belic Charts Path to ‘Happy’

Susan Gerhard July 6, 2011

Though it’s a state of being, happiness is also, as it turns out, a skill. Like juggling, or table tennis, it can be practiced. Roko Belic’s documentary, Happy, explores the art and science behind happiness, not just a destination, but also a growing intellectual industry fed by studies in neuroplasticity and cognitive psychology. The documentary finds happy people in the most unlikely situations: a woman who’s lost her conventionally beautiful looks after a horrific accident, an impoverished rickshaw driver in India. Belic, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker (Genghis Blues) who recently lensed Tom Shadyac’s I Am, is also a longtime San Francisco filmmaker who, for his own happiness, moved to Los Angeles to be closer to better waves and longtime friends. He spoke with about his pursuit of happiness and the film to go with it from the lobby of the Little Roxie, near a poster of his first film success, which the Roxie distributed 15 years earlier.

SF360: This story is of a piece with your past work, which include spiritual quests of others. But how did the idea of concentrating on happiness specifically as a topic come about?

Roko Belic: A friend of mine called me up and suggested we should make it. That friend is a big-time Hollywood filmmaker, Tom Shadyac, who directed The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, and I Am. He saw an article in the New York Times that morning, comparing countries based on happiness. The U.S. was a rich country, but nowhere near the happiest. He had some insight into that paradox because he had a lot of money but was surrounded by people who weren’t happy. He was living the Beverly Hills lifestyle: a mansion on 14 acres, with 30 people working for him as gardeners, chefs…. Many of his peers were living even more elaborate lifestyles. But many of them he thought were less happy than his gardener and his housekeeper, who had a genuine smile every morning. People who had achieved the extreme version of the Americain dream weren’t made happy by it. He had a sense of what doesn’t make you happy, but wanted to explore the true causes of happiness. He said I don’t know how to make documentaries, but you do. He was willing to support it financially, so we could skip that painful process of raising money.

SF360: I am particularly interested in the idea of play that opens the film, adults doing novel physical activities, racing in gorilla suits….

Belic: What Tom taught me is that play is so important in an adult lifestyle. He encouraged me to believe in the power and importance of play. He had gone through an extremely intense working period when he was growing his career. And he recognized how his life and his body were falling apart because all the focus was on work. Tom really encouraged me and the people around him to play and have fun, to find out what gives you physical joy and do it.

Making this film, I was encouraged to start surfing again. For 12 years when I lived in SF I didn’t surf. Maybe twice. I started to believe what people said as an adult you should work. Kids play and adults work. I believed that myth. While making this film, I moved as close to the beach as I could, in a trailer park in Malibu, so I could surf. When I started surfing again, we would stop in a surf shop, and every time we left the surf shop, we commented on how amazing happy the guys who work in the surf shop were. They work for $10 an hour, don’t have medical benefits, aren’t as stable or secure, maybe, as others, but what they had I saw missing in my friends who had quote unquote real jobs. One of the things I wanted to do in the film is shine a light on something really neglected in our society, which is the importance of play.

SF360: The science is fascinating, and we can read that in places like the New York Times. But to tell the story of happiness visually, through images on a screen, it’s stronger.

Belic: I think that’s why human relationships are so importance to happiness. When you’re in someone’s presence, you engage differently than when you are reading about them or hearing the story secondhand. We have been trained to accept an email as a replacement for hanging out with somebody. Even a conversation on the phone is less dynamic than meeting in person. We’ve been trained to believe that these things are sufficient replacements for real personal contact and hanging out and being with somebody. The film is a great opportunity to put a spotlight where there’s too much darkness.

SF360: How did you find the particular stories of the film: the Louisiana family smiling as they crack crab and drink beer from cans…. The beautiful woman disfigured by an accident but happier after the trauma?

Belic: When I started the project, one thing that excited me about it was that I knew it would be a genuine exploration. I knew we should have to really seek out answers, and that’s fun for me. We found our stories in a huge variety of ways. For example, someone emailed me, said she liked my film Genghis Blues and wanted to know what I working next. When I told her, she said she had won a competition on photographing happiness, in the south in America. I asked her who she had photographed. A few months later, I was floating down the Louisiana bayou with Roy Blanchard, one of the subjects of her photographs and our film.

[Another story came to me this way:] A friend of mine said you have to meet this guy who’s writing a book on optimism. When this author was in San Francisco, we met, had an amazing conversation. When we exchanged business cards—mine said ‘happiness’ and his said ‘optimism’—it felt like the stars lined up. He invited me to sit in on an interview he was doing for his book. For the next two hours, I heard Melissa Moody tell her story about being run over by a truck…..

SF360: So none of these stories were supplied to you, ready-made?

Belic: Tom Shadyac’s was a bold gesture that doesn’t happen very often in our culture. ‘I’m going to empower you to find answers that are true. Whatever agenda I have is totally irrelevant. Have 100 percent integrity.’ He had us spend $650,000 of his own cash, donated through a nonprofit.

SF360: The science itself is interesting, the study of behavior that makes us happy. You show that it’s a new field, a shift from the sources of depression to the causes of happiness?

Belic: As soon as Tom suggested we make the film, I discovered there was a whole new field of science growing, one that was brand new. One aspect of it is positive (cognitive) psychology. I ordered a bunch of books, looked into experiments. I found the most interesting aspects of the research. Ed Diener (known as ‘Dr. Happiness’), at University of Illinois, was the first guy in America who studied it formally, beginning 35 years ago. The real push started about six years ago, and the field has been growing exponentially ever since. The year before we started, 2004–5, there were four books in the previous decade. In the following year, there were 10 books on the science of happiness all in one year. The following year, there were something like 25.

SF360: You present a list of happiness principles in the film. Happiness-creating ‘skills,’ such as maintaining strong relationships, being generous, becoming absorbed in meaningful work. Did that come from one thinker in particular, or was it a synthesis from the search?

Belic: It was a synthesis. I don’t think happiness is a simple thing to achieve, but it is achievable. There are stepping stones and landmarks that can help somebody achieve it.

As the maker of this movie, you have to have goals: to create a cinematic experience that’s entertaining, pass on information from research and empower people to find a path to true happiness for themselves.

SF360: The Okinawans were amazing to watch. One reads a lot more about their diet than (as your film showed) their impromptu dancing!

Belic: We had heard that happy people tend to be healthier, get sick less often, live longer than unhappy people. I remembered as a kid that the oldest people in the world came from Okinawa in Japan. I wondered: If happy people lived long, and there were a lot of people who lived long in Okinawa, maybe there were happy? We went there on a whim, hadn’t read any research on it and found that it was a resounding YES, they were happy, had created a society that had nurtured happiness on an individual and group level. Sometimes in the west we want to find a concrete, physical answer: a genetic trait, a nutrient in food to explain why live long lives. What I found in Okinawa was that they created a culture that bred happiness. You don’t have to be happy by blood or birthright.

SF360: Theirs was a very intergenerational culture, with ages mixing.

Belic: Different generations come together on a regular basis; it’s a stark reminder of how it doesn’t happen in America. (I love America but it doesn’t mean we don’t have things to learn from other places.) One story I didn’t tell in the movie involved the kids race. We hung out with all these 95 year olds 100 year olds for a couple days. We wondered, Can we see something at the beginning of life that indicates how they will grow old…? So we showed up at a preschool. The teacher said that this particular day was one day every couple weeks they spend outside the classroom. That day, they were going to have a footrace. We walked two blocks through the village. The kids started running. A group of grandmothers convened at finish line. Grandmothers nurturing hugging, helping a child with a skinned knee if needed. I went to congratulate a grandmother about having such a great grandkid. She said, ‘That’s not my grandchild. None of these are my grandkids.’ I asked, ‘Is this your friend’s?’ She said, ‘None of the women here are related to any of these children.’ That was amazing. They were there for each other regardless.

SF360: Surfing makes you happy. What else?

Belic: I’ve always known, since high school (in Evanston, Illinois) that I have wanted to reunite my friends, to be with them more often and see them. It’s frustrating when you’re a kid, parents make you do things. You say, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to do everything I want to do, play with my friends all day.’ When you’re a grownup, you don’t see your friends at all. The irony of that bugged me. Here we are healthy, educated, but not with each other. Something’s wrong. I just accepted that. I chalked it up as one of the shitty parts of adulthood. But after working on this film, learning the importance of relationships, I moved to a different city to be near my childhood friends. I had lived South of Market in San Francisco for five or six years, then Vallejo for another nine before moving to Los Angeles.

I started making this film, not for me, but to empower others. I now wake up, stare out the window in a different part of the country because of making this film. I breathe different air because of making this film. I moved to this trailer park because of this film. (After visiting it, I realized the community there was great. It was not quite cohousing in Denmark, where every adult looks after every kid. But it was so nurturing that my girlfriend and I now have a kid. We literally have a daughter because of making this movie. Her name is Viva Paradise….)

SF360: You’ve been making films for more than 15 years. What have you learned?

Belic: I started shooting my first real film when I was 23, in 1994 (Genghis Blues), and was based here in SF.

I feel like I’m going deeper and deeper down a path that I don’t want to come out of. I’m moving more and more into my life. I guess in terms of filmmaking, one thing I’ve learned that I feel is really important is that any movie is about an emotional journey. Any image, sound bit of dialogue is there to add to the emotional experience. And I think that’s a very significant factor in why so far I’ve had the good fortune that our movies have played really well to audiences.

It’s true that there are certain themes that resonate with me, and those are themes about our interconnectedness. The fact that we feel isolated or alone, that’s an illusion. Science shows how interconnected we are. The biosphere doesn’t allow anything to not participate. It’s exciting that over past few years, I’ve gotten clarification of a concept Howard Zinn helped me get to. When I was shooting I Am, which Tom produced, I asked Howard, who was 86 at the time, if—after studying all these social movements, political movements, revolutions, ideologies and religions—he could offer me that morsel of wisdom, some truth that my generation doesn’t know, something that would help us understand what he knew. What he said was, ‘People don’t understand the power of their individual voice.’ ‘Think of the big decisions in your life,’ he said, ‘how you met your spouse, where you decided to go to college. If you think hard, you can usually trace the decision back to a single idea, or conversation.’

That’s really interesting. Every gesture we make. Every smile we share with someone or don’t. Every time we flip somebody off in traffic, or let them in. Every gesture has an effect. Not just on other people but on ourselves. The science of neuroplasticity shows that your actions and your behaviors physically affect the structure of your brain; that brains change structure because of what we do. The power of our own voice is something we’ve been taught to not believe in any more. We’re taught to believe in systems, brand names, movements, but not the power of ourselves. I think that’s a mistake.

SF360: I’d like to end on that note, but I do have one more question. How are you going to get this movie out to the public?

Belic: We don’t have a big Hollywood studio behind us for distribution. So I called on all my friends and my friends’ friends to get movie out there. We are doing grassroots networking; we handed out postcards just now in he line for the Yoga Is film playing the Roxie. Individuals have the power to make the difference in our distribution. Someone emailed me that they sent out our digital flyer to 50 people in their community and they were going to tell everyone at work to see the film. Facebook, Twitter, emailing, sharing the trailer. We do have a booking agent…. We’ve opened in 4 or 5 cities so far, with screenings in Australia that went well. We plan on showing it in movie theaters, community centers, churches, yoga centers, over 6 months or so, with the help of whoever’s willing to join the Happy team.

Over the five years of making this film, contemplating the wars the U.S. has been involved with, I wondered about the film’s purpose. But the research moved me. Happy people tend to be good people. People who care about each other, who are willing to help a stranger, who are creative, inspired, feel a part of something bigger. They are less likely to go to war, less likely to pollute the environment…. All the things I’m bummed out by are directly related to somebody’s happiness. Happy people make a happy world. Unhappy people make a miserable world.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I went to Film Arts Foundation and saw some kids who had just checked out some movie equipment. They had Mohawks, stretched ears, tattoos, were punk rock kids who probably don’t have a lot of money. They were doing it because they cared about it. There was something about the vibe these kids had that I was inspired by. Not to be rich and famous, they were filming something because they cared about it… I hadn’t seen that before. It was my first exposure to the truly independent filmmaking world.

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