Director looks for 'Happiness' in the world around him
Mike Hughes | TV America
There are plenty of movies viewing tiny chunks of human existence.
Now there's one that asks the big questions: What is happiness? Where do we find it?
Andrew Shapter, who is bringing "Happiness Is" to East Lansing on Saturday, says he didn't have the answer when the project started. "I was generally happy, but I had a bad habit of upward comparison."
A successful fashion photographer, he compared himself to mega-successes. "I had to literally avoid looking at other people's careers."
So he made a documentary, "Before the Music Dies." He took it around the country, to any place (including the 2007 East Lansing Film Festival) that cared about music. "It was just exhausting," he said.
That's when a colleague asked what his second film would be. "I said, 'It had better make me happy.' "
He decided to tackle the subject of happiness itself. And he would do it as a random road trip.
Shapter talked to the man on the street (literally). He talked to survivors and heroes and victims. He ranged from little kids to Pinetop Perkins, the pianist who is now 96.
He also talked to rocker John Mellencamp ... which led to the Dalai Lama. Road trips are like that.
Shapter - a Texan who was born in Forth Worth and lives in Austin - was looking for a Heartland voice. Mellencamp, who still lives in Indiana, was ideal; he told him: "Do onto others as you would have people do unto you. ... I didn't just make that up, but I know it works."
In that Bloomington setting, Shapter says, there was a detour: "I had forgotten about his supermodel wife."
Elaine Mellencamp chatted with him about their links in the fashion world and about the Tibetan Culture Center in Bloomington. That led to Shapter filming a visit by the Dalai Lama.
Religion fits neatly into the subject, several studies have shown. "People with religious faith ... tend to be happier than people without," author Darrin McMahon told Shapter.
In part, author Gretchen Rubin told him, that's because they have a sense of community. That's rare these days: "Instead of living in your home town and having all your friends from grade school and high school and all the people you're close to, you move to a new city."
There are plenty of books and studies on happiness. Rubin even pointed to one that says children laugh 400 times a day, adults less than 50.
Shapter stayed clear of the subject of romantic love, but he tackled other subjects, including huge differences in expectations.
Dr. Lily Gonzales talked about being one of 10 children in a one-room home in Mexico while their father worked in the U.S. "so we could get tennis shoes every three years." He would die young, apparently from the effects of pesticide poisoning; she would be an illegal immigrant, then a citizen, now a doctor and radio personality.
Another strong figure is Alan Graham, a former businessman who in 1999 started a mobile food truck for the homeless of Austin. Now he has 13 trucks and 9,000 volunteers.
Shapter was curious about why the people are homeless; Graham avoids the question.
"He said, 'You don't ever ask why. ... Just do something about it.' I wish everyone could get in that car with Alan Graham. I got out of the car and I was a different man."
That influenced the way the movie is presented. In each town, Graham said, the majority of the ticket money goes to a local charity (in this case, the film festival); he gets by through DVD sales and through occasional photography work back home.
That's no match for Alan Graham filling stomachs or the Dalai Lama filling souls. It does, however, bring satisfaction to a fashion photographer. "Right now, I'm very, very happy."