By Jonathan Lawrence
CALGARY — In bold letters warns the audience at the beginning of the documentary: This film will not make you happy.
It’s a good thing that the filmmakers, Stefan Sagmeister and Ben Nabors, placed the cautionary caption there in case anyone got the wrong idea. If you were unfamiliar with The Happy Film’s premise, you might think it was about relaxing on the couch with Netflix and a beer; yet in fact, it’s a serious insight into the science behind happiness and one man’s quest to find it. Along the way, he’ll attempt the answer the question: Is there a formula one can take to find happiness?
It may sound like a social experiment, but the origins of The Happy Film come from genuine questions asked by the film’s main subject and co-director Stefan Sagmeister. “It is the true story of a graphic designer who thinks he can design himself to be better,” said Ben Nabors, co-director of the film.
Throughout the film, Sagmeister will run a series of experiments on himself to change his brain, including a total nine-month trial with meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy and medication. What he found, though, was that it’s not always so simple. What begins with a tone of levity, Nabors explains, becomes more serious throughout the documentary’s running time.
“It is [a social experiment] too, but it is certainly the true story of what happens to a guy who turns himself into a lab rat for happiness,” said Nabors.
Sagmeister’s drive for happiness may confuse some, as he is initially very successful as a graphic designer, having designed record covers for The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z and Aerosmith, to name a few. Furthermore, he seems quite content. As Nabors explains, however, “He just became very interested in this question, if we can train our bodies. If we can exercise to be healthier, why can’t we similarly train our minds?”
“As a graphic designer who finds improvements to things, it makes sense that he would pose that question,” he adds.
In the film, Sagmeister states that making a movie about happiness is like making a film about life. “It’s too big and too complicated,” Nabors adds, finishing the thought. “So we focused on area where we felt we had some expertise which was his happiness.”
Although the documentary’s subject matter focuses on Sagmeister’s life and problems, Nabors assures that there is something for everyone to take away. “There is a lot of relevance and a lot of answers observing his successes and failures throughout the film. You [might] learn what to do, what not to do, and hopefully apply it to your own life. That was always our goal.”
Self-financed and six years in the making, The Happy Film is an ambitious project; one that Nabors sounds proud of, and is happy with its critical response so far, pardon the pun.
“Six years in the making was never the plan,” Nabors laughs. That said, it seems the extra time gave the filmmakers room to develop their theory and to see where it went, including all the highs and lows that can happen in someone’s life during that time.
“Documentaries are interesting; you can choose when you end your story. If we had stopped the story on a high moment, Stefan’s journey would have been very positive. If we stopped it on a low moment, Stefan’s journey would have been wasted. We gave ourselves the time and space to properly contextualize it.”
So, remember that The Happy Film will not make you happy, but knowing that you didn’t have to go through Sagmeister’s experiment just might.
The Happy Film screens during this year’s CUFF Docs festival at the Globe Cinema, which is happening Nov. 17-20. Film screens Saturday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m.AB, Alberta, Ben Nabors, CUFF.Docs, Globe Cinema, pursuit of happiness, science of happiness, Stefan Sagmeister, The Happy Film