1 Formula 1 Documentary Review Essays

What makes people happy?

It's the question at the heart of filmmaker Roko Belic’s new documentary feature film simply — but appropriately — titled “Happy.”

The film was originally inspired by a 2005 New York Times article “A New Measure of Well-Being from a Happy Little Kingdom” by Andrew C. Revkin in which the United States was ranked 23rd on a list of the happiest nations in the world. With much poorer countries like Iceland and Puerto Rico easily surpassing the U.S., "Happy" makes a compelling argument that once basic necessities like food and shelter are provided for, economic factors have relatively little to do with overall satisfaction in life.

Instead, using a balance of scientific research and fascinating human stories, the filmmakers explore some of the non-material roots of happiness, and in the process, show that while there isn’t a formula for it, everyone can become happier.

With subjects ranging from an Indian rickshaw driver to a family of crab-fishing Cajuns in the Louisiana bayou to an aging Brazilian surfer, the film benefits from the huge variety of experiences it examines.

Belic, whose 1999 documentary “Genghis Blues” was nominated for an Academy Award, never dwells on any topic for too long. Instead, the film jumps from country to country at a refreshingly brisk pace, and in so doing avoids the tedium sometimes associated with educational documentaries.

Ultimately, though, that quality — perhaps the documentary’s single biggest strength — also turns out to be one of its only real weaknesses. At a scant 75 minutes, there is just too much to say and not enough room to say it in.

Although this is as much a compliment as it is a criticism, many of the sub-topics the filmmakers touch on, often very briefly, are compelling enough in their own right that entire documentaries could easily be devoted to them.

One example is the recent Japanese phenomenon known as “karoushi” (literally, “dying from overwork”). Citing scientific research that argues one’s health is directly related to his or her happiness, the filmmakers contrast the alarming work situation in many Japanese cities — where “karoushi” is being listed as the legal cause of death with more and more frequency — with another Japanese oddity: a disproportionate number of centenarians in rural areas, especially on the island of Okinawa. As fascinating as this dichotomy is, however, it only makes up a small part of the 75-minute running time.

Because of this, “Happy” works best as an introduction to the subject, and it presents its information in a clear and appealing way that often belies the sheer quantity of stuff being thrown on the screen — data and stories culled from five continents over a period of four years.

Probably the best compliment that can be paid to “Happy,” however, is this: It is as enjoyable to watch as the name would imply. Similar to last year’s “Life in a Day,” “Happy” is brimming with positive energy and a sense of joy regarding the shared human experience. For many audience members, just sitting through the movie and engaging with the individual stories will likely make their day that much happier.

Screenings for "Happy" were recently held on Feb. 11, although none were held in Utah. The film can be seen on DVD or downloaded on iTunes. For more information, visit www.thehappymovie.com.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

Documentary photography requires skill beyond the technical and creative mastery of camera and lens. To document and to photograph requires a skillset that reaches past the mere assembly of a random collection of images on a common theme. In this regard, the strapline “Art of Visual Narrative” is a more appropriate description of the subject matter lying within the covers of Freeman’s book than the title itself. Freeman has published an impressive 50 books on photography and so should know a thing or two about putting words to images that offers fresh perspective on the art of documentary photography.

The Photographer’s Story starts out by recounting the history of the photo essay whose origins are tightly intertwined with the birth of Life magazine in the 1940s. His analysis of W. Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor” offers a detailed insight into the construction and layout of a quintessential photo story that has stood the test of time. Structure and layout is memorably encapsulated by a 3+1 formula of opener, body and closer plus climax (key shot). Freeman devotes a great deal of time to the so-called “double-page spread” and so talk about layout and design may not be so practical if you don’t intend to submit your work for publication in print. Nevertheless many of the same principles can be applied to the online presentation of a photo essay, particularly if not in slideshow format. Rhythm and pacing are two such principles that are easily overlooked but which Freeman argues strongly (and successfully) for throughout the book.

Some may lament that the examples used in Freeman’s book are drawn almost exclusively from his own archive of photo stories. If it was another photographer, then this could indeed be restrictive and a legitimate cause for concern, but the breadth of Freeman’s work is so extensive that he easily succeeds with this approach in my opinion. Stories such as the Tea Horse Road and the Salt Story are beautifully illustrated and lift the lid on ancient traditions that may not exist for much longer in today’s progress-obsessed China. After all, is it not more useful to offer original insight on the reasons for presenting your own work rather than an analysis of why you think someone else has taken a particular approach? Notwithstanding the fact that Freeman has not always had control over the presentation of his own photo stories due to editorial pressures.

Perhaps the weakest section of the book lies within Part II, specifically the section on “Kinds of Story” which becomes a slightly tedious exercise in rhyming off the different genres of photo essay. Freeman also repeats himself at other points throughout the book but this actually serves to emphasize key principles rather than act as unnecessary page-filler. As the reader turns page after page, it becomes apparent that to be a successful documentary photographer in today’s world demands that you adopt a multimedia approach to enhance the story-telling power of the still image. Slideshow photo essays (of the online sort) are a relatively new invention and will doubtlessly undergo further development. Of particular interest to me at least, is the crossover between a sequence of still images and a movie clip. Expect to see a gradual blurring of boundaries on what is defined as a moving image in a similar manner to the development of stop-motion animation by Hollywood. 

If you’re unsure about splashing out on the book but want a taster, then visit www.thefreemanview.com. The Slideshows and Photo Essays (Part 1 and 2) article in the Techniques section of his website offers advice on creative planning and technical details. How many of us, for example, have considered the relative merits of click-through versus auto-play? Cross-fades, swipes, pan and zoom are all discussed and the photo story on Secret Angkor effectively translates his guidance into practice. The obvious challenges of using a printed format to illustrate the complexities of designing an online slideshow are laid all too bare in Freeman’s book, which furthers the case for this online resource.

So what could be improved? Although the book concludes with an online section that analyses what makes a good slideshow, it misses the opportunity of describing what makes a good layout on a web page. After all, can one not order a collection of images addressing a specific theme on a screen similarly to a printed page (albeit not a double-page spread)? Perhaps this is material for another book but it at least deserves acknowledgement and a reference to another more suitable source of advice. Another useful resource worth making available would be a “Making of…” video clip on YouTube or Vimeo to enhance the online material already available. Although Freeman makes it clear that he wants to avoid the distraction of focusing on the technical details of assembling and presenting a photo essay, it would have been useful to get some insight into his workflow beyond the “Edit and Show” chapter in the book.

The Photographer’s Story avoids lengthy passages of text and is generously sprinkled with powerful and engaging photo stories that draw upon the author’s long and illustrious career. This book is a commendable point of reference for aspiring documentary photographers such as myself. Freeman redresses the balance away from mere aesthetics and towards the process of creating a more comprehensive and meaningful body of work that engages an audience on multiple levels. You may never look at another photo essay in quite the same way after reading this book.

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