How do you know when what happens in a movie is real?
On Friday, at the New Directors, New Films Festival, I attended a screening of Happiness University, a film that chronicles a Raëlian retreat in France. For those who are unfamiliar with Raëlism, it asserts, much like Scientology, that humans were created by extraterrestrials, and it requires members to be consistently peaceful and loving in preparation for when our creators return. So what exactly happens at a Raëlism retreat?
The film shows members of the retreat participating in activities such as meditation, swimming, dancing, and bonfires. There are some twists to these activities, such as members dressing up and playing the opposite sex at a dance, as a way to get to understand their dance partner(s). At some points, we are treated to short Skype seminars with the founder of Raëlism, Claude Vorilhon. He states in one Skype call that our personal thoughts are the obstacles that we constantly run into when trying to achieve peace, and that the three feelings that contribute to happiness are laughter, orgasm, and meditation, suggesting a New-Age leaning.
What is interesting about this film is that it blurs the lines between documentary and narrative. The film’s directors, Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra, are best known for documentaries, but the movie’s online description mentions that at least two people in this retreat are played by actors. So, it is difficult to determine what genre this film belongs to. For example, there is one interesting scene, where Lily, who is actually one of two actors who appear in the film, is taking part in a meditation session involving other people slowly moving their hands toward her meditating body. As soon as everyone’s hands make contact with her, she lets out a cheerful sigh that that makes you feel that this is real. Either the actress is highly experienced, or she actually is feeling something from that meditation session. Supposedly, it is up to us to decide, but then again, maybe that is part of the strange charm of this film.
There are no characters to follow. In fact, many moments are quite sporadic and do not offer much character development. For example, there are three identical scenes of different couples proclaiming their love for each other, as if they were exchanging wedding vows, and then the camera cuts to other retreat members before we find out anything else about the couples. The camera occasionally lingers on Lily. All we know about Lily is what we get from watching her during an activity where she has to face the physical embodiments of her personal struggles. But even she doesn’t get enough focus to make her a main character.
Perhaps the purpose of this film is to let us explore the retreat, as if we were really there. Although it is hard to say whether or not Happiness University is groundbreaking in terms of blending documentary and narrative, at the very least, it gives us a window into understanding a way of life through people and their actions. Maybe not all of the people at the retreat were real, but the connections between them seemed so. It is an interesting film, and I recommend seeing it.