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Agent of Happiness- Four creators in front of sponsor board

“Agent of Happiness” Spotlights a National Campaign and Sparks Self-Reflection

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 19: (L–R) Suraj Bhattarai, Arun Bhattarai, Dorottya Zurbó and Máté Artur Vincze attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Agent of Happiness” premiere. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock)

By Patty Consolazio

Films can affect viewers in great and enduring ways. But we don’t often get the chance to hear how they can affect the very people who create them.

Co-directors Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó spoke in a Q&A after the premiere screening of Agent of Happiness on January 19 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. 

“Documentary filmmaking is always a very self-reflective process, and I think while we were shooting the film, we were always questioning ourselves, what makes us happy,” says Zurbó. “I think for me, visiting and living and creating in Bhutan in the last 10 years, what I learned from the people and our protagonists is mostly acceptance to try and let things go, not always striving for more, and appreciate the moment. Making this film was a lot of time a reminder of our values, which we tend to forget in this rushing world.” 

Bhutan lies deep in the center of Asia between India and China, known for being a verdant, mountainous region of the world. As a society, the Bhutanese hold the belief that happiness is a characteristic key to the well-being of the nation. In fact, much like with the U.S. Census, Bhutan’s government sends hired agents to travel door-to-door throughout the country and interview residents in hopes of gathering data on their “Gross Happiness Index.” 

Amber Gurung wakes up each morning, tends to his mother, brushing her hair and admonishing her to go outside to brush twice daily so she doesn’t shed hair on the floor. Then he bids her farewell so he can do his job as an agent of happiness. Hiking from shanty to shanty, Amber and his partner knock on doors and meet people where they are — working in their fields, chopping wood, sitting in meditation or prayer — and they interview them to ascertain their level of happiness. Residents give a rating of 1 through 10 on indicators like worry, satisfaction, work-life balance, and number of cows, pigs, and TVs. And when a man says, “I am as happy as the number of grains in my rice storage,” well, that’s a 7.

As Amber traverses the countryside, he considers his own happiness. He dances, sings, and plays air guitar for fun, and has a car and job, but he says life is empty without someone to share it. Similar stories of gratitude and longing come forth, as we meet the man with three wives who speaks for them, insisting they are very happy, as one of the wives wipes a tear from her eye. And the man who hangs white flags on the mountain to protect his dead wife’s spirit; though she is not dead — he believes she has been reborn as his grandson. One young woman is very happy because her cow has given birth, providing her family with another milk source. 

Although their lives are modest and luxuries few, the Bhutanese teach a clear lesson about the happiness derived from the simplest things. This rings especially true for those who embrace their blessings and spirituality. As one young woman expresses, “I must have done something good in my past life to be born in this country.” 

Agent of Happiness is part of Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition.