In 2010, Thomas Balmès had gone to Bhutan in the Eastern Himalayans in search of the simple life. The country was on the cusp of receiving electricity for the first time and in 1999, after strict rules from the king prohibiting outside transmission of internet and television were relaxed, the culture was bound to change dramatically once it was connected to power lines. It wouldn’t arrive while Balmès was around to film, leading the director to change his plans but keep the cameras rolling, letting audiences experience the same sense of innocence he felt when being in a community that had been largely untouched by the connected world and was able to see it through the eyes of Peyangki, a nine-year old who was studying to be a monk at a monastery in Laya and always had an air of curiosity about him, intrigued with the possibility of getting a TV from the nearby city of Thimphu.
Out of that time, the 2013 documentary “Happiness” emerged, but Balmès had kept in touch with Peyangki and returned to Laya when he suspected there might be a new story to tell. He found so much more than he bargained for in “Sing Me a Song,” where Peyangki’s wanderlust has only grown in the years since they last saw each other, yet it no longer has to remain confined to his imagination as a cell phone has opened up the world to him without leaving Laya, somehow finding his way into a relationship with a young woman in the city named Uygen. While elders at the monastery wonder about his focus, Peyangki’s spiritual journey becomes emblematic of one navigated by millions the world over as he engages more with his devices than with the people around him, leading him into situations he’s wholly unsuited for given his upbringing.
Balmès, whose displays of remarkable sensitivity have allowed him into spaces both sacred (“Babies”) and often secret (“A Decent Factory,” looking at the working conditions inside a Nokia plant in China), is able to capture the small, subtle ways in which Peyangki’s growing attachment to technology changes his behavior as well as that of his peers at the monastery. To kick off the new year, “Sing Me a Song” is rolling out to audiences around the world after a celebrated festival run that began at Toronto Film Festival and the director spoke about embracing the unexpected and putting a premium on visual storytelling as a documentarian, as well as how he might’ve inspired his subject to make films himself.
No, I didn’t. But “Happiness” was not the film I intended to do at the time. The film I intended to do when I did “Happiness” was “Sing Me a Song” — about the impact of these screens on this community. Because of the huge storm that Bhutan went through at the time, all the roads were destroyed and the electricity in the village was delayed by years, so the film ended up being something totally different than what I was supposed to do, which is what is great about documentaries. You never know at the end what the film is going to be. But my original idea was definitely to follow the impact of these screens on this community, so when the years passed, I thought “Okay, maybe it’s the right time to go back to Bhutan and see what’s going on with Peyangki and what kind of relationship he has now with his TV and phones and internet.
When I returned to Bhutan, I absolutely had no idea what I would find. It was a total mystery to me. The very first thing I saw entering the monastery was the scene you see [in the film] when I realize [as] all the kids were praying, they were playing on their mobile phones. So entering the monastery and observing that, this just convinced me that there was definitely another film to be made. This [scene] is the only thing I showed to the different funders and they all jumped in, thinking, “Well, this is definitely interesting to see what’s going to happen in this community.” I didn’t know when I started the project that I would go into town, that he would meet this girl. I didn’t know anything. But just visually to see these kids praying and playing with their mobile phones at the same time convinced me that this is a story already in itself and this is my way of approaching filmmaking. It’s purely visual, I would say. Not intellectual at all.
You’re able to tell such a remarkable story just within a cut when you show Peyangki going to bed a decade ago without electricity and then having him wake up in the same room, starting out his morning by checking his phone. Was it like deja vu when you were standing there filming?
It’s just something I observed and I’m trained to have every single shot potentially working without any dialogue. I’m working on long shots which potentially try to tell the whole story and then you have dialogue on the top of that, but that is the most important. Today, to me, both fiction and documentary suffer enormously on not putting enough attention on cinematography and the uniqueness of the media which is documentary — it’s reality that you cannot really reproduce. Visual is almost left to wildlife and National Geographic types of projects and the other [type of documentary] should only be content to do interviews. I’m not so comfortable with that. This first encounter that you cannot predict in a treatment because it is so crazy, so everything in the way I’m shooting is very organic and very visual and then I’m only starting to think intellectually when I’m at the editing suite. The more it goes, the less dialogue I want to have in my film.
Was there anything that happened that took you in a direction that you really hadn’t been expecting?
Almost the whole film is something I was not expecting. This is why I’m doing documentaries. There is not a single shot, a single frame in the whole film that didn’t bring me to another place I was not thinking I would be, so this is what I’m working on is not thinking on something and illustrating it with a film. I’m just trying to allow reality to bring me to all these different kinds of situations and locations and characters and allowing myself to follow all these tracks and possibilities and hoping it’s going to make sense. But I just want to follow one process of having one boy, who I’ve never seen onscreen [before] and see how this impact on his life will go through a certain number of years. This is the only thing I knew when I started the whole project. The rest surprised me every day when I was shooting.
I’ve been in contact regularly with Peyangki and he’s never brought back the idea of going back to the city or meeting anyone else. This trip to the city and this experience with Uygen was very painful and difficult for him and I don’t think he’s ready to go through it again. I think this was one test in his life and I’m not sure he’s ready to go through it again. He’s very keen on staying in the monastery now and he wants to teach to the younger generation the trumpet.
But the big impact the whole thing had on him is more keen to direct himself. He is spending a lot of his time organizing some fake Bollywood dance film in the monastery and he has huge choreography with the monks dancing close to one another. [laughs] Maybe we’re going to do a film together for the next project. I hope so.