Arts & Entertainment

Sundance Film Festival’s ‘Agent of Happiness’ makes audience happy

'Agent of Happiness' follows a wondrous one of 75 surveyors collecting the Gross National Happiness Index in Bhutan

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival screened the premier of the documentary “Agent of Happiness” on Saturday at the Redstone Theater. The film was part love story, part travelogue, all good, and feeds both the left and right brain of its viewership.

Filmed in the Himalayan Region of Bhutan, there are few stereotypical monks, no stereotypical sherpas, just rando’-normie’ Nepalese that you never knew you needed to know. 

Amber Kumar Gurung and Gunaraj Kuikel appear in Agent of Happiness by Arun Bhattarai, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute // Arun Bhattarai
Amber Kumar Gurung and Gunaraj Kuikel appear in Agent of Happiness by Arun Bhattarai, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute // Arun Bhattarai

“I must have done something good in my last life to be born in this country,” as stated by one of the subjects, pretty much sums up the attitudes of the countrymen and women being interviewed in the countryside for a census-of-sorts.

The film follows a wondrous one of 75 surveyors for 7,000 people collecting the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). For the seven-or-so filmed, they calculate an index including tangibles and intangibles like sheep and sleep, actionables and inactionables like friends and fears, and deliverables and non-deliverables like kids and karma.

According to the government of Bhutan, the vast majority of its people are happy, and precisely 3.3% more than the previous year. Whether the people are telling the truth about their happiness, whether the government is telling the truth about the people’s happiness, whether the metrics are able to accurately measure anyone’s happiness, the answers may be somewhere in between, but the filmmakers give you all the documentary facts and let you come to a decision for yourself.

One of the directors explained to the audience, “In Bhutan, happiness is high on the national agenda.”

A mostly lighthearted film, “Agent of Happiness” also tackles the reality that, as the director told the audience during the question and answer session about one serious storyline, “Citizenship is a taboo topic in Bhutan for the people of Nepal.”

In the lobby, there were approximately 25 people in the waitlist line, a common practice unique to the Festival, all of whom made it in this time.

Waitlist line. Photo: Michele Roepke // TownLift

Since everybody gets a vote, even unofficial critics like this one, I give “Agent of Happiness” a three out of four stars. 

Each Sundance Film Festival screening allows for a couple minutes before and approximately 15 minutes after whereby the director addresses the audience. Standing next to them is an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. This screening’s was Tony Bonny, one of at least a baker’s dozen hired for the Fest. Bonny lives in a suburb of Salt Lake City and the majority of the ASL interpreters hired by the Sundance institute are Utahns.

This is Bonny’s second year doing this for the Sundance Film Festival and he told TownLift he’d do it again next year. When not in Park City, he works with the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind/Community Center with campuses throughout Northern Utah.

Today he was signing on stage at the Redstone Theater for Sundance’s Accessibility Team which is run by Laura Bench, yesterday, it was a different venue for a different film and tomorrow it’ll change again. Moviegoers may start to recognize Bonny at the various locations, he’s hard to miss at over six-feet-tall with his mohawk-cut dreadlocks down to his low back. 

Directors of the film alongside Tony Bonny, ASL Interpreter.
Directors of the film alongside Tony Bonny (far right), ASL Interpreter. Photo: Michele Roepke // TownLift

Bonny is a self-described child of deaf parents (CODA) and yes, he is a fan of the Sundance film by the same name, and yes he cheered along with the rest of the country when CODA won the Oscar Award.

Regarding Agent of Happiness, Bonny told TownLift, “I enjoy Indie films in general, seeing something different seeing something unique, learning about a different culture. Coming from a language aspect, because that’s what I do, I thought it was fascinating to hear how they used a lot of their native language but sprinkled in some English for other words.”

Agent of Happiness is spoken in the Tibetan language of Bhutanese, and shown with English subtitles. The directors for whom he was doing sign language speak with thick accents from Bhutan, from Hungary, and from other European influences, keeping a job like Bonny and his  week-long ALS colleagues, important, interesting and international. 

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