A chat with local filmmakers Tom Vendetti, Bob Stone and John Wherheim
In the last few years, this trio of creative-types have joined forces to give us two seemingly different films with a parallel message. One, a rare glimpse in to Bhutan's concept of "Gross National Happiness"; the second, an up-close and personal visit to a Kaua`i hippie commune in the mid-1970s. Having a hard time seeing the link? Read on to share our exclusive interview with all three filmmakers who brought you (and the world) both movies.
"There's absolutely a tie between the films. There's a spiritual element to both of them. A non-material element. A message that money doesn't buy happiness," says John Wehrheim, writer, producer and photographer on both films. Wehrheim recruited editor-videographer-director Bob Stone along with producer-director Tom Vendetti, both from Maui, to complete both films.
Vendetti has made multiple documentaries ranging from rehabilitation for Hopi Native Americans to mental illness (he currently is the chief of the adult mental health division at Maui Mental Health Clinic); Stone has shot and edited films since the mid-1980s, when he made promotional videos for Kawasaki Motors.
Another link between Taylor Camp and, Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path To Happiness (which was just nominated for two Emmy Awards) is that they both began as photography sessions for Wehrheim.
In 1970, Wehrheim moved to Kaua`i with a girlfriend who was close to Howard Taylor (Elizabeth's brother). Taylor, who couldn't get permits to build a home on land he had purchased north of Hanalei, indirectly placed a stony thorn in the side of the officials who turned down his application: He allowed a dozen wayward hippies to live in modestly constructed tree-houses on the property. Before long, Taylor Camp (as it came to be known) was a full fledged destination for counter-culture drop-outs looking to tune in with nature, and live the quiet life on a sliver of paradise, U.S.A. Although Wehrheim never lived at Taylor Camp, he would visit on the weekends to shoot photographs supporting his thesis study on natural architecture. (Wehrheim was teaching photography at Kauai Community College at the time; he was also—and still is—a practicing hydraulic engineer.)
In 1991, Wehrheim went to Bhutan as a hydro-electric consultant; the Bhutanese were proposing an ambitious plan to use rivers to power their electrical needs (the ins and outs of which are covered in the film). As a guest of the country, Wehrheim shot reams of film throughout his travels—something he claims he'd never be able to do if he wasn't there on a work capacity.
"The government keeps the country under wraps," says Wehrheim about the Himalayan Buddhist nation. "I'm of the philosophy that it's better to ask forgiveness than permission. But since the film has come out, the royal family have bought my books, the film and been very supportive. In fact, one of the princesses came to support an early screening.
Make no mistake: the Bhutan film is not solely a glossy look at what an enlightened Bhutanese life is like. Wehrheim, Vendetti and Stone were sure to raise controversial issues as well. Consumerism, drugs and alcohol use, and perhaps most intrusively—television—has turned this nearly medieval society modern overnight.
According to Stone, the collaborative process between the three filmmakers was so extensive and detailed that, after screenings of both films, each would assess comment cards and re-edit, rinse, repeat. In fact, many people who have seen screenings of both the Bhutan film or Taylor Camp haven't seen the final versions that are now showing around the globe.
What follows is a glimpse at the conversations between B on Hawaii and the filmmakers.
B on Hawaii: Tell us a little bit about the reactions to both films have been, both here in Hawai`i and worldwide.
Bob Stone: On the first screening day, we flew over to Kaua`i from Maui, not knowing if anyone was going to show up. We had this room in Kilauea where we planned on setting up the projector, and a thousand people showed up. We wound up having four screenings over the next 2 weeks there. Things like this have been happening since we started showing it.
John Wehrheim: From Washington, D.C., to Japan and Thailand, we get a lot of interest in the Bhutan film from film festivals that have an environmental slant. Plus, whenever PBS shows the film, we see spikes in people buying it in the regions where it showed.
Tom Vendetti: The Bhutan film has now been showed all over the world, and I have gotten phone calls from all over the world. People just want to talk about Gross National Happiness, and how they can use it. There are people who want to use it as a model here in U.S., too.
B on Hawaii: I understand the network of Taylor Camp is out there, still vocal. Did you have to track down a lot of people for the film, or did they come out of the woodwork once word spread you were working on the film?
Stone: John still had a lot of their contact info. Maybe 20 or 30 people on Kauai who lived at Taylor Camp at one time or another, 30 on the Big Island, a dozen on Maui a few in San Francisco, San Diego, Reno, etc. But what was most amazing were the situations that opened doors to expand the scope of the film.
Wehrheim: The more we showed the film, the more people would come forward and say 'We have home movies from Taylor Camp.' Especially the local people on Kaua`i. You have to understand, this was really a story about how Kaua`i was then, not just the campers. Without the aloha of the Kaua`i people there never could have been a Taylor Camp.
Stone: So we'd have these pot luck gatherings with Taylor campers, run the camera, and whomever wanted to talk could talk. All these people would show up, and say 'My wife and I lived there from this period to that period. And my cousin...' and it kept streaming in. Another time, someone saw these three pictures of a policeman that the Taylor Campers talked about, and said 'I know his family'. So we got him on camera, and the connector was a woman who was a journalist on Kaua`i at the time. She insisted on doing the shoot at her house, and then said 'Well you know, I covered Taylor Camp all the time, if you want my take...' And these things kept happening.
B on Hawaii: What are the most inspiring points of the films for you guys?
Wehrheim: When every day people in Bhutan told us that their happiness is not measured by wealth, but the 4 pillars that lead to happiness, it was inspiring. It was very similar, interestingly, to the various people at Taylor Camp who—remember—were living very meagerly in trees and shacks, with not much more than a pareo on their back, who say it was the best time of their life.
Vendetti: As a psychologist, my standpoint as a filmmaker is documenting what changes people, and what fuels that. What's interesting is that the Taylor Camp people were so idealistic in creating a place where they could execute their own social change and seek happiness. This obviously is the same theme as the Bhutan film.
B on Hawaii: Can you tell us the most extreme reactions anyone has had to either film?
Wehrheim: This was one of the most interesting realizations I had about the films. I was in China, working closely with the printers who were producing my book on Taylor Camp. And we were sitting around the printing press, watching the sheets come off the machine. One of the technicians said to me, 'How did you find these actors to play these parts?' And I said to him, 'These aren't actors. This is the real thing.' And they could not comprehend that people could live that freely, that easily. The could not dream it was possible. They thought it was costumes, actors, a farce...
Likewise, when I went to Bhutan straight from China, I took a copy of a rough cut of the Taylor Camp film and showed it in one of the art houses there. And the monks, everyone, identified with the lifestyle immediately. Live simply. Live happily. The monks thought it had a very Buddhist message.
These two reactions were so vastly different, it was staggering.
Vendetti: I don't know about extreme, but here's a reaction I had. Two years ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I thought about the major themes of my life, having traveled to Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and realized; these are all places where you need to have no agenda. You need to show up open-minded, and be able to roll with change. I realized that this is how I not only approach film making, but life. I can't help but think about the wonderful things that could happen if we approached some of the world's bigger issues with that in mind.
B on Hawaii: Where does this team go from here? Any projects on the horizon?
Wehrheim: I'm already working on another film in Bhutan, with the help of officials there, to document the spiritual masters and their teachings. It will probably be called "Living Masters: Bhutan's Great Yogis, Hermits and Lamas".
Vendetti: I'm in the midst of a documentary called Himalaya Journal, which focuses on climate change and how it affects cultures in those places. It started with a trip to Tibet in 1983, when I sat at a base camp in Tibet and listened to the locals talk about the receding glaciers, and how it affected their people. I was lucky enough to sit for 45 minutes with the Dalai Lama and talk with him about climate change and happiness, for this film.
B on Hawaii: Can you leave us with a word from His Holiness?
Vendetti: I had asked him what a country's role was in promoting happiness. He said, 'We have to teach more compassion in the world. In schools, through education to children.' I then asked him a question about climate change, and his answer was implied to both questions: 'You can't pray for change. You have to be pro-active.' It was pretty amazing.
Taylor Camp can be screened this May in Kailua-Kona, Hilo, Kahului, Honolulu and Lihui. For times and scheduling log on to www.TaylorCampKauai.com
Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path To Happiness can be purchased at Amazon.com and seen at film festivals world wide. Check the site for screenings and more: www.bhutan-film.com
Wehrheim will be at the Hawaii Book Fair May 15th & 16th, 2010, at Honolulu Hale to sign copies of his books.
"Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path To Happiness" was just nominated for two Emmy Awards.