By Miguel Gonzalez, Jr.
Roko Belic wants you to be happy. He also wants to change the world, which he says is “screwed up in many, many ways.”
The Oscar-nominated director intends to try to do both by finishing his documentary film, “Happy,”and he’s aiming to secure the necessary financing through an increasingly popular fund-raising website,Kickstarter.com.
But will his fundraising goals have a happy ending?
Belic, who shared an Academy Award nomination in 1999 with his brother Adrian for their documentary film “Genghis Blues,” has spent four years working on a film that explores happiness. The germ of the idea came from a friend of Belic’s, Tom Shadyac, director of such mainstream Hollywood fare as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.”
Shadyac’s films were hugely successful, but after several years of living the Hollywood lifestyle, he told Belic he still wasn’t happy. After the two discussed a newspaper article on the world’s happiest countries, Belic decided to investigate why the U.S., though the world’s wealthiest country, ranked nowhere near the top of a global survey on happiness. His investigation, ranging from U.S. university psychology labs to the shantytown home of a rickshaw puller in Kolkata, India, became the film “Happy.”
“For thousands of years, we’ve had philosophers and spiritual leaders and even comedians who talked about what made you happy,” Belic said in an interview with Speakeasy. “I wanted to know some of the science behind it.”
The scientific research in the film includes the work of Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychology professor, and Richard J. Davidson, psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Lab for Affective Neuroscience. The research showed that a specific area of the brain, the left prefrontal cortex, enlarges when a person is happy. But the circumstances that led to that happy state were even more surprising.
“One fundamental premise shocked me,” Belic said. “[I thought] if you were good and successful at something you enjoy, you could be happy… [But] it’s the values we have that are the biggest indicator of our happiness.”
He found that goals associated with happier people—so-called intrinsic goals such as compassion, friendship and a sense of connectedness with one’s community—were in sharp contrast with another set of goals perceived, falsely, to lead to happiness: extrinsic goals such as money, power, fame and social status.
“What we discovered that the science is saying is that what makes people happy also makes the world a better, healthier place,” he said. “These are taught out of us as we are trained to make money, and to compete with each other. We’re trained to suppress these things.”
Outside the labs, Belic’s lens was wide—taking him to 14 countries and all over the socioeconomic scale in the search for what makes people happy. From Kunming, China, to the Louisiana Bayou, he found that regardless of their wealth, occupation and even their physical health, happy people shared similar values.
“I’ve never heard of very happy people talk about beating someone up, or robbing someone or going to war,” he said. “These are things I kind of knew intuitively, but [I found I] was always frustrated with how the world works.”
“I hope that this film can help to shift the direction of culture,” Belic added. “I think people are hungry for it. A lot of people tell me they aren’t quite living their lives to the fullest.”
Completing the film, however, looked to be a less happy task, as Belic eventually ran into the same problem many independent filmmakers do: He was running out of money. While Shadyac, a producer on “Happy,” donated a fair amount of the funding for the nonprofit project, Belic was still short about $145,000.
“When I made my first movie, ‘Genghis Blues,’ it was impossible to raise money for it,” he said. ”We never found the right people to support it.”
A friend of his, Kenny Laubbacher, had encountered the same financial shortfall for a film he’d been making for his nonprofit group, Invisible Children. The group, which makes documentary films about war-affected children in east Africa, had raised $21,627 for its film through a Kickstarter project page. That gave Invisible Children 108% of the funding it had sought—from 355 backers who found its page and kicked in donations ranging from $10 (37 donors) to $1,000 or more (two donors).
Kickstarter connects creators—artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers—with donors through a microfinancing scheme that rewards supporters with such gifts as autographed journals and digital downloads of completed projects. Donors of $100 to Invisible Children received a digital download of the documentary along with a rough-cut DVD signed by the organization’s founders.
“Kickstarter allows you to cross those barriers I was unable to cross without the Internet,” Belic said. “[I discovered] there is audience for the film, I just needed to find a way to tap into that.”
“[We connected with] not just grants and institutions, but also a high-school kid who has an extra 15 bucks and wants to participate in something he finds meaningful.”
The Kickstarter campaign for “Happy” is split into three phases, with the first one, targeting $33,000, ending July 10. So far, as of July 5, it has raised more than $18,742, meaning the project must raise just over $14,000 in the four days remaining.
“For an independent filmmaker who spends too much time in a dark editing room, that’s really nice,” Belic said. “It’s nice to know that you have supporters you haven’t even met yet.”