Invasion of TV in remote Bhutanese village

RIVETED TO THE SCREEN: In 1999, Bhutan decided to allow TV into the country. Balmes' documentary, Happiness, shows the power of the medium.


    Jan 27, 2014

    Invasion of TV in remote Bhutanese village


    WHAT happens when a remote village in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan gets electricity and television?

    Happiness, a new documentary by Frenchman Thomas Balmes, shines a light on the power and dangers of the small screen.

    In 1999, the authorities in Bhutan - which measures prosperity famously by gauging its citizens' happiness, not GDP - decided, after much reflection, to allow TV and the Internet into the tiny landlocked country sandwiched between China and India.

    But the village of Laya, which is two days by foot from the nearest road, had to wait more than a decade more before electricity arrived.

    That's when Balmes - whose work is financed partly by TV companies and who previously had a hit with a documentary called Babies - grasped the rare opportunity to observe the impact of TV on a community that had never had it.

    "The idea was to make a film about TV. And I even thought, for a time, about coming to make it in the United States," he said at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where the documentary had its release.

    "After hesitating over whether to make the film in a place where an enormous amount of TV is watched, it occurred to me that, obviously, I should go to the opposite end of the scale. What better way to talk about TV than by going somewhere where it doesn't exist?"

    The documentary tells the story through the eyes of Peyangki, an eight-year-old who is "practically the only person who had never left the village".

    "That made him even more of a virgin in terms of experiencing electricity and TV," said Balmes.

    He wanted to show the transformative power - positive and negative - of a medium that is now ubiquitous in the developed world.

    The film-maker said he doesn't have a TV set at home.

    "The huge problem with TV, even without talking about what's on it, is that it becomes an invasive force," he said.

    "With Happiness, I naturally that is accepted...Today, if you go back to Laya, there isn't a child who plays with the bow and arrow in the street. They're all in front of the TV, and don't do anything else.

    "It's a complete mystery to me that we ask teachers for certain qualifications to educate our children, but we don't have the slightest worry about who makes the six or seven hours of TV watched daily on average."