Searching for Happiness

Today I’m writing about my own production – Searching for Happiness. The project soft launched in May. Since then we’ve been doing some additional development work to create a version that’s accessible on more browsers and on slower internet connections – important, as people have contributed from around the globe. As it has been a while since I posted about the project I’ll offer some context.

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Searching for Happiness is the second stage of The Are you happy? Project. It’s one output of my practice-based AHRC research fellowship. (Another is this blog.) For The Are you happy? Project I’ve taken the street interviews from early in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s seminal 1960 film, Chronique d’un Ete / Chronicle of a Summer, & the question posed in that sequence, as a starting point for a web documentary that takes advantage of the online network for a cross-cultural inquiry. That filming in Paris was one of the earliest uses of handheld sync sound. In the early 1990s I had made a programme for BBC 2’s The Late Show which looked at that moment around 1960 when these new possibilities were emerging and contrasted Ricky Leacock’s film – Primary – with Chronique d’un Ete, examining the very different ways that the potential of sync sound technology was harnessed and conceived of in France and in the United States. Here’s a clip from that programme which includes an interview I did with Rouch in 1991 in his editing room at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.

Rouch has been an inspiration to me in a variety of ways and provides my research with a historical underpinning. His experimentation at that earlier moment of disruptive technological change around 1960 reminds us that documentary and technology have been in a continual play over the years. His view of documentary as a fundamentally collaborative undertaking – as a work of “shared anthropology” between filmmaker and subjects – provides me with a framework for thinking about the co-creative turn we’re seeing in online documentary today.

In 2010 – exactly fifty years after Rouch and Morin were making their film – I posted a clip from Chronique d’un Ete online with an invitation to filmmakers to reshoot or reinterpret that sequence. The question Are you happy? became a way of asking; what is your life? as Rouch articulated his underlying theme. I developed a filming brief with questions to consider about location and subjects, procedures for permissions, terms (copyright remains with the filmmakers). I looked for volunteers – primarily through the D-Word international documentary community. I targeted filmmakers who were in production in places I might not get access to through an open call – the Mongolia footage came about that way. I also contacted two NGOs – Insight Share and Video Volunteers – who work with participatory video in the context of development – and commissioned some filming through them from grassroots video makers in India and Peru. Slowly I gathered the diverse sequences you can see in the project gallery. Here are some highlights.

The filmmakers who got involved are a diverse group with different levels of experience, approaches to filming and relationships to their subjects. These are expressed in the material in overt and subtle ways. In Mongolia the filming is classic vox pops. Answering a stranger, the interviewees are polite but not inclined to be expansive. You wish you could follow some of them, see where that takes you. Still, there is lots going on in the footage. The answers speak of the collective ethos of the Soviet Communist past, of Buddhism, of nomadic culture, and of today’s dramatic economic growth. In Peru, Irma Luz Poma Canchumani is recording in her own village. That isn’t overtly stated but the feel of the conversation and intimacy of tone give the footage a touching affective dimension that would not have been there if the interviewer was an outsider. Maria Rosa Andreotti’s interviews in Argentina have a particularly philosophical dimension. The viewer is witness to the experienced filmmaker making space for her interviewees to reflect. In Tasmania, Kate Nash, a documentary maker and scholar, decided to break completely with the vox pop approach. Rather than collar her subjects she put up a poster outside an art gallery explaining the project and the question, and waited for people to come to her. Lots of people did. It’s fascinating that her approach elicits the most confessional material and some powerful revelations. One interviewee offers an important insight as to why one might talk to a stranger about very personal things. (No, I’m not going to tell you. Take a look.)

As a group the recordings are intriguing – from diverse places and situations which suggest hugely varied experiences of life, the self and society. The recordings also raise all sorts of questions from a documentary perspective – about local norms around self-revelation, about attitudes to filming, and about what kind of insight interviews, especially vox pop street interviews, can offer. Documentary is usually an iterative process. You respond to what you have, reshaping the next stage to answer the questions raised by the first. But having gathered the interviews, I wasn’t sure what to do next, how to frame them. I experimented with forms of information as context. But what context to offer? A little bit of information seemed too leading, reductionist. I began to think that to understand anything about the recordings you needed to know everything about them –  the history, politics, economy, philosophy of each place, and quite a bit about the filmmaker, the individuals being filmed, and the location. In other words each place needed its own documentary, lovingly crafted by a local filmmaker. The context of the internet had allowed me to reach out far and wide, but documentary is a project rooted in place, and face-to-face relationships. (I recently heard Brian Winston quote George Stoney who said, “Every communication should end with a handshake or a kiss.”) Still, I needed to find a form for what I’d gathered.

Meanwhile, something profound was unfolding in relation to web video with the arrival of the latest version of the web coding language – HTML5. Up until a few years ago video on the web had been a separate entity – sitting within a player as if in a little TV screen. With HTML5, video could be encoded within the web page in the same way as other web content. This meant that it was now possible to create a hyperlink within a video frame or on a timeline, and video could be connected to other elements on the web. Video was suddenly potentially part of the web not on it.

Mongolia : Flickr

At the Open Video Conference in New York in the Autumn of 2010 I came across an early version of Popcorn Maker – an open source platform created by the Mozilla Foundation – designed to allow the user to make those links between video and other content. In its first incarnation Popcorn Maker was essentially being used to annotate video – to link for instance between a point in a video and a Wikipedia article or a related image. (The remix artist Jonathan Macintosh makes virtuoso use of this potential in Right Wing Radio Duck ) I began to think about how these affordances might be deployed for montage – that principle meaning making dynamic of film and video and hence of documentary making.

In one of the earliest definitions of documentary – John Grierson described it as “the creative treatment of actuality”. I wondered how it might be possible to meaningfully incorporate contemporary “actuality” – drawing on that ocean of content and data that’s expanding online every moment. In particular I wondered how I might work with API feeds that Popcorn made accessible – drawing in alongside the interviews other voices and ideas relating to the localities and interview themes in the form of tweets and tagged Flickr images. I was curious to see how this living archive with its multiple voices and points-of-view might be used as documentary content. And if the social media content drawn in through search terms might provide a form of context that could feel true to the recordings and to our contemporary reality. Searching for Happiness emerged out of that process.

So, when you select one of the country videos within Searching for Happiness what you then see is assembled as you watch. The video comes from Vimeo, the music from Sound Cloud, tweets from Twitter, photos from Flickr (offered for reuse through the Creative Commons license.) Each time the feeds will be slightly different. It’s an experiment in documentary as a live experience and a more open text which changes day-to-day.

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This won’t be the final version of The Are you happy? Project. After all there are whole swathes of the world that aren’t reflected in the project yet. Now that Searching for Happiness is live I’ll be seeking more contributions. If I can expand the collection a database version will become an interesting option – offering the viewer the chance to peruse the material via theme – age, gender etc. So if you are curious about taking part and would like more information please mail me at

The Are you happy? Project, and the cultural implications of ubiquitous data, are discussed in more depth in “We’re happy and We Know it: Documentary, Data, Montage”, an article Jon Dovey and I co-wrote for the Interactive Documentary special edition of Studies in Documentary Film (Vol 6 No 2).

Finally, I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has filmed for the project, and to the team. You can find out who they all are on the Credits page.