COURTESY BLAISE NOTO & ASSOCIATES
Bhutan's people are dedicated to preserving their environment, believing that as long as they take care of nature, it will take care of them.
Bhutan’s contented path
A film made in the remote Asian country of Bhutan could easily have ended up as a pleasant travelogue, but producers Tom Vendetti, John Wehrheim and Robert Stone had another purpose.
'Bhutan -- Taking the Middle Path to Happiness'
Film screening and appearance by Jigme Drukpa of Bhutan's Royal Academy of Performing Arts
On view: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Performing Arts Center, Kauai Community College; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Imin International Conference Center, East-West Center, University of Hawaii-Manoa; and 5 p.m. Sunday, Spalding Hall Auditorium, UH-Manoa
Call: 944-7159 or visit Bhutanfilm.com
A kingdom steeped in Tantric Buddhist culture, Bhutan finds itself facing immense challenges in stepping out of its relative isolationism into all that the 21st century offers.
Vendetti, director of "Bhutan -- Taking the Middle Path to Happiness," said the documentary began as a straightforward depiction of the country's hydroelectric energy industry.
Vendetti, who has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Maryland, said research brought about a change in his approach. "I stumbled onto the country's concept of 'gross national happiness,' and as a psychologist, that just intrigued me."
The genesis of the documentary was two years ago when Vendetti met Wehrheim at an East-West Center exhibit of Wehrheim's photographs of Bhutan. "I told John how I always wanted to go to Bhutan to make a documentary, so he arranged a meeting with graduate student Thinley Choden," Vendetti said. "We originally wanted to look at how hydroelectric energy was clean and sustainable there. "But since not many Westerners are allowed to go into Bhutan, we prepared a proposal that Thinley helped us with that would be sent to the proper government authorities. And to our surprise, we got a fax reply several months later giving us the go-ahead."
So the team, which included musicians Paul Horn and Christopher Hedge, set out for Bhutan to find out more about the country's energy policy, plus get in some cross-cultural musical collaborations.
"The people are so colorful, very unique," Vendetti said, "and you couldn't get a bad shot if I just randomly pushed the record button."
While Wehrheim spent a couple of months in the country's remote villages, Vendetti spent most of his three weeks in the capital of Thimphu.
"I was a bit skeptical about this whole idea of 'gross national happiness,' but defined in their terms, it means finding contentment and satisfaction from within, and a balance between family, work and recreation," Vendetti said. "The Buddhist philosophy kicks in when it means overriding negative thought and emotion, grounding yourself and thinking in positive terms. As a Western psychologist, I know that as cognitive behavior restructuring.
"Although we took a neutral stance and showed both sides ... have to admit, I believe they are on to something. There's a lot of wisdom in this country, and it would be healthy to see others look into this, especially world leaders."
Vendetti sees growing media influences, such as television in 1999 and the Internet a year later, as well as the recent presence of bars and nightclubs in Thimphu, as a real threat to the native culture.
"They feel that through education throughout the country, and having local shows on TV that emphasize native values, Bhutan can battle back these outside influences. But it's going to be tough."
Bhutan, located between India and China, has been able to survive independently throughout its long history, Vendetti said, and its social infrastructure remains strong.
"The people are dedicated to preserve their culture and environment," he said. "It's all based in Buddhist belief -- where the forests are populated with spirits and deities -- that there will be no consequences so long as they take care of nature, (that) nature will take care of them."