Since 2008 the government and monarchy of Bhutan have made it a political and cultural policy to promote happiness to foster stability of the country itself. By implementing the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, an equation that mathematically measures and calculates the happiness levels of the population, the government believes the success of the people equals the success of the country.
But what happens when Agents of Happiness, the very people tasked with researching the happiness of others, realize that they themselves aren’t happy, and that what’s needed to make a person truly happy, and content can’t be quantified by numbers?
Premiering in the World Cinemas Documentary Competition program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, Utah. Agent of Happiness is the second collaboration by Bhutanese director Arun Bhattarai (Mountain Man) and Dorottya Zurbó (Easy Lessons) of Hungry – The Next Guardian being their first – explores this very concept in the uniquely structured narrative documentary, Agent of Happiness.
Filmed over the course of four years beginning in 2019, Bhattarai and Zurbó followed agents Amber Kumar Gurang a Nepalese refugee living in Bhutan, and his co-worker Guna Raj Kuikel as they interview residents all over the stunningly beautiful mountains and countryside villages to find out how their happiness rates on a scale of 1 – 10.
Using criteria ranging from possession of agricultural machinery, modern technology, to how jealous they are, Amber and Guna discover that though Bhutan is known as the happiest country in the world, the Bhutanese people themselves aren’t exactly happy in ways that were expected.
Bhattari and Zurbó’s decision to let the subjects of the film guide them in where to take the story, proves very effective in showing how the people of Bhutan are no different to anyone anywhere else.
Having been displaced at the age of 2-years-old with his now aging mother, and thousands of others from their homeland in Nepal became embroiled in a civil war, Amber has never felt as though he truly belonged anywhere. Though he loves his adopted homeland, the failure of the Bhutanese government to grant him citizenship has created subconscious feelings of discontent and loneliness hidden behind his shy smiles and gentle nature.
Like Amber, the film specifically highlights the lives of people struggling to find happiness in their interpersonal relationships and contentment. There’s Yanhka Lhamo, a teenaged girl whose disappointment in her mother’s alcoholism has created a sense of insecurity and uncertainty in her mother’s ability to be a dependable adult.
Despite the assurances of her beauty and value as a human being from her mother, transgender female performer Dechen Selden struggles with feelings of jealousy and worry of ever fitting into a society that accepts her at night when she’s performing on stage, but not in the daytime.
Ultimately, what Agents of Happiness highlights is that happiness is a universal emotion that every human being experiences, but what that means to us and how it’s achieved and experienced is as individual and unique as each star in the sky. If Bhutan wants to ensure the Gross National Happiness of its people, the individual needs must first be acknowledged to be met. Which is a lesson every single one of us needs to learn for ourselves.
We should be the agents of our own happiness because we know what’s truly necessary for us to be our own version of happy.
Freelance Critic, Journalist & Podcaster
African American Film Critics Association Member, Tomatometer-Approved Critic
Co-Host & Producer So Here’s What Happened! Podcast
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