By: Maria Jan
Roko Belic sounds happy. In the most literal sense his voice reflects some unearthed secret about life that most of us seem to have dashed by in our nervous frenzy of daily activity. Belic, an Academy Award nominated and Sundance Award winner, made his directorial debut in 1999 with Genghis Blues.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Belic about his experience with documentary film making and his most recent film Happy (www.thehappymovie.com).
Elan: So tell me how did you get started in documentary film making? Of all things to choose as a career path – why documentary film making?
Roko Belic: I didn’t really choose it as a career path. You could say it started when I was a kid. My brother and I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment and watched only what our mom liked to watch which meant we were watching the PBS channel. At one point the knob on the TV broke and being 7-years-old I couldn’t fiddle with it to change the channel so we kept watching PBS documentaries.
Even as a young adult in college I didn’t know I was going to be a documentary filmmaker. I guess you could say it began [formally] when I met Paul Pena who was this blues musician who did throat singing. I learned Paul was going to Tuva and asked to go along and document it, which led to making Genghis Blues. Genghis Blues, I would say was a culmination of everything I was aspiring to. I love to travel, and [documentary film making] was the perfect way to do the stuff [I loved]. Genghis went on to getting nominated and winning a bunch of awards which is what gave me the confidence to continue making documentaries.
Elan: How do you select a story?
RB: I tend to get sucked into real stories, stories that are just part of life, they aren’t anything I have to actively create, they’re just happening and then I pursue them.
Elan: How do you decide on a story?
RB: The decision is abstract, I don’t even think about the details on how to get a film done, it’s a gut instinct that says ‘Yes!’ and the rest is about finding out how to get it done. It’s an endless struggle but with an inherent spirit of adventure. We usually don’t have the right equipment or have every step planned out – we just figure it out as we go along, but we do always have a ‘key ingredient’. For Genghis Blues it was Paul Pena – who was going to Tuva and we asked if we could tag along, luckily after some hesitance he said yes.
Elan: What would you say is your style of film making? What do you aim to do?
RB: I seek to distill the emotional power of the story and bring it to an audience. Whatever story I’m telling I explore the emotional amplitude and try to convey the entire amplitude of that particular story. For example, in Happy I didn’t want to make a movie that was only about depicting happy people because to understand happiness you need to understand it in relation to other emotions. So in the film I wanted to bring people who were experiencing different emotions to explain happiness.
In Genghis Blues it was about bringing the audience in so they could experience Paul’s triumph. I wanted the audience to see Paul’s sadness and depression and see how far he’d come, to see the that amplitude from one extreme to the other, to get as wide as of a breadth of that amplitude as I could and convey it accurately. [With Genghis] when I filmed I wanted there to be no barriers between the subjects and the story, I wanted to create something that gave an immediate way to experience the story.
In life we often try to limit our emotions, men especially, try not to cry when something makes us sad. I have a ten-month old baby that literally screams when I walk into a room after being away for an hour. I think it’s beneficial to connect to our emotions, of course I am speaking from a cultural perspective in the West so it’s important for me to take the audience on an emotional journey.
Elan: How different was it making Happy from Genghis Blues?
RB: Genghis Blues is different from anything I’ll ever do because Genghis was the first documentary film I made. It was made in a hermetically sealed environment where no one had any expectations of me and I had no idea on what I was going to do. When it was done and we won all these awards and suddenly I had more expectations and stronger obligations. I mean I always felt obligated to the people who worked with me but after Genghis Blues, everything changed. I have contacts now and I can strategize more than before.
Before, no one had faith enough to give us funding for Genghis Blues, for them it wasn’t marketable enough but luckily we had our families and close friends who understood what we were doing, who believed in us and I’d say it was a product of our passion for the film. I guess you could say the main difference is that before everyone assumed I didn’t know what I was doing even if I thought I did. Now everyone assumes that I know what I’m doing.
Elan: While filming Happy is there a turning point where everything clicked into place?
RB: Yes, but it’s always late in the game. With Genghis Blues it was in the last six months. Usually the real challenge with documentaries is the editing phase, not the shooting, it’s about putting the pieces together in the best way possible. I would say the real turning point came once we were able to sift through 400 hours of footage and decide which was the most important and found the most compelling story.
The one part off balance is how much you have to edit, with Happy I was not the main editor. I spent a couple of years editing and during that process I’m reminded of how into it I am. Usually I find that there isn’t anything I don’t want, it’s difficult to craft something like that.
Elan: That’s a long time!
RB: Yeah, it might sound inefficient but when you see the amount of people you touch it makes it seem efficient. For instance, with Happy, we’ve had people write in and call tell us about how the film affected them positively.
Elan: How do you know when you’re done with a film? How do you know you were done filming (with Happy for example)?
RB: I never really worry about the finish line with filming because when we edit we find things we need to do – like grab shots of people for example. I might declare the end of the bulk of filming but usually even after you finish you find you might need some B-roll.
You could say documentary film making is like making a collage with photographs, cutting, pasting, seeing what parts have meaning. It’s fun until it gets tedious.
Elan: Like after hundreds of hours editing?
RB: Yeah! Truth is a documentary can be like a work of fiction. The main difference between a documentary and a fiction film is that with documentaries you’re working backwards. We shoot and then we look at the script. I mean, when filming, I do have an idea in mind and have a list of things, like who to interview, but when a greater truth presents itself we honor and respect that.
Elan: You’re very passionate about the topic of happiness, it seems like this is more than capturing stories through film. Is it a movement? What do you aspire to do?
Yes, I am very passionate about it. About half way through making the film a best friend of mine from childhood was captured in Iraq. It was horrible for a few days, we didn’t know if he was alive or dead. During that time I asked myself whether I was living with as much courage as he was. I started thinking about my own life. Was I contributing as much as I could? Around that time a body of research came out about happiness and what happiness does. Happy people tend to be healthier, make more money, take more vacations, live longer…there are a ton of benefits! Another body of work says that happy people tend to benefit society more, are more likely to help a stranger in need, help the environment, are less likely to steal. That edified in me that I had participate in this movement.
One thing we have coming up is the Happy Challenge. I want to engage people in this process – I mean you can’t make a happy society without happy individuals. During the film I realized we can increase happiness. The goal is to share tools that can help them find ways to happiness. I want to show how important it is to be compassionate through healthy, sustainable relationships – it’s the one thing missing in war zones, in decision making and in communication.
People have become disconnected with compassion. We are born to reciprocate with people, we’re born to benefit and revel in others joys. Certain trends in our culture have pushed us away from basic truths regarding how to function. If we can shift our systems to reflect those things, we’ll benefit.
Elan: You’ve done a lot of interviews thus far – is there anything you’d like to say that you feel that hasn’t been addressed?
RB: The movie was not a job so to speak, it wasn’t an assignment that I started. It is a reflection of my life and expression of who I am and expression of how lucky I am that I’m in a society, which despite problems we face, have opportunities to say what we want. We are lucky to be around others who are similar. Like in Libya who struggle for freedoms we have.
I encourage people to explore power they have to affect people around them. I encourage people to recognize that they are much more powerful than they think in their ability to change what they want. Every opportunity you do or don’t take you are participating whether you like it or not.
In the 80’s I had the opportunity to speak with Howard Zinn and I asked him – “With all of the experience you’ve gleamed what is the one thing that my generation needs to know?”. You know what he said? “The one thing people don’t understand is the power of a single voice.” I mean, think of an important decision in your life, whether it’s where you live, what college you went to, you can often trace those decisions to a single conversation. Whether we do something or not, every moment is a choice. We’re each playing a role and it’s up to each of us to be conscious about it.
To see the Happy trailer visit: http://vimeo.com/wadirum/