Roko Belic / Filmmaker

On 22 October 2012 by Alisa Damaso
Photo by Bil Zelman at KCRW

Roko Belic. Photo by Bil Zelman at KCRW

Imagine being a restless 6-year-old with nothing to do. Then, your friend inherits a Super 8 movie camera from his parents, and all of a sudden you’re making movies. And when Star Wars comes out, it challenges your imagination. You don’t know it yet, but you guys are getting a taste of your future careers.

“I’d never been so engrossed in a movie before,” filmmaker Roko Belic says of Star Wars. Roko spent his childhood helping his brother, Adrian, and their friend, Chris, make movies. At the time, Roko didn’t realize that movies were actually made by people. “I thought they were real;” he says, “a window to another world. I was absolutely captivated by that idea of traveling to another world and having an adventure.”

This early introduction to filmmaking gave Roko the impression that he knew how to make movies. He continued the effort in junior high, “but they were terrible because I didn’t know how to tell a story,” he says. Regardless, he kept at it throughout high school, and in college he and Chris made a short film that ended up on PBS. Then in 1996, Roko and Adrian developed Wadi Rum Productions, under which they document moving stories that demonstrate humanity across the globe.

Paul Pena and Kongar-ol Ondar play together in "Genghis Blues"

From Genghis Blues: Paul Pena and Kongar-ol Ondar play together by Khemchik River in Ime. Photo by Adiran Belic

In a way, Roko has become the traveling adventurer he dreamed of being as a child — he’s gone to direct the documentaries Genghis Blues (1999), the Oscar-nominated account of blues singer Paul Pena’s musical pilgrimage to a Tuvan throatsinging festival in the isolated nation of Tuva, and Happy (2011), a global exploration of the science behind happiness and a collection of personal stories from the most fulfilled people around the world.

And that friend, Chris, went on to direct Memento, Inception, the last three Batman movies. “So that was a huge influence,” Roko says. “It’s really because Chris Nolan and I were friends when we were kids that I thought about making movies.”

Roko uses filmmaking as a way to move people and improve the world. It’s also a way to bring people together. In 2010, Roko made a documentary called Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious,  and realized that movies are the closest thing to collective dreaming. If you imagine hundreds of people in a theater watching the same thing, all enraptured by a film, “that’s the closest you get to sharing the same dream. It’s pretty awesome.”

Roko is proof that sharing your dreams will take you further than you expect.

Manoj Singh pulls his rickshaw in Kolkata, India in this scene from 'Happy'

Manoj Singh pulls his rickshaw in Kolkata, India in this scene from “Happy”


Alisa Damaso: What inspired you to make a film about happiness?

Roko Belic: That came from a personal conversation. My friend called me up, he said he read an article in the New York Times about happiness, and the article said essentially that we’re very rich in America but we’re not very happy. And this friend, Tom Shadyac, who had made tens of millions of dollars as a blockbuster Hollywood film director, said, “the article really resonates with me because I know what it’s like to have a lot of money and have it not make you happy. I see people around me every day who have much more money than me, who are more ‘successful,’ but are not as happy as the people who clean my house and trim the bushes.” He said, “I know what doesn’t make us happy, I want to know what does — I think we should make a documentary about it, what do you think?” And it was an awesome beginning to a great adventure that lasted over 6 years.

AD: It’s such a necessary film — it really puts things in perspective. So many people are fixated on work and money and forget how to enjoy themselves.

RB: And it’s such a wasted opportunity because there’s a lot of ways they can optimize their lives. They have the resources to do it, but if they’re not doing it, then it’s somewhat of a wasted resource.

AD: What kind of struggles have you faced in your profession?

RB: Well, it’s been mostly a struggle up until recently. Every movie I’ve worked on has been very challenging in many ways. Usually it’s financial, so usually it’s hard to find funding for films. There are all kinds of technical problems when you’re making a movie independently. You’re using equipment that’s at the cutting edge of technology but hasn’t been tested fully; there’s new software and new programs and new equipment. Very frequently you’re dealing with technical problems, things are breaking down or not functioning properly; that can be very frustrating.

There’s all kinds of other technical challenges when you’re shooting. If you’re in a place where there’s no electricity for example. When I was shooting for a couple of weeks in the Kalahari Desert, we had to figure out how to not waste batteries so that you can shoot everything you need to. All that kind of stuff is fun, but the struggles that kind of drag you down that make you think, “Do I really want to do this again?” — those mostly have to do with either setting the project up and getting it rolling, or at the end when you’re in post production and it just takes absolutely forever to get to that final final cut of the film.

And then the challenges that I like the most in making films is when you really have to dig deep yourself and figure out what is worth saying — what are you trying to say? And as you’re figuring it out, simultaneously you’re figuring out how to say it in the most powerful way that communicates to the audience you’re targeting. And so that’s a really fun challenge.

From “Genghis Blues”: Roko Belic filming the traditional sheep slaughter at Sut Khol in 1996. Photo by Adrian Belic

AD: What advice would you give creatives who are starting on their path?

RB: When you feel like all odds are stacked against you, if you persevere in something you really believe in — it’s worth the effort. If you’re trying to articulate a story that really moves you and that you want to share because you think it will have a deeper impact on people — that’s what I’ve been trying to do — and in my experience it’s totally worth all the hassle and struggle it takes to get there.

My first project took me four years to make, and the entire time that I was making Genghis Blues most of my friends, and increasingly my family, started to pressure me to get a real job in terms of getting me some income or some kind of stability. So there were only just a few friends and my mom who really supported that endeavor. And four years later we won the Sundance Audience Award and a few months after that we’re walking down the red carpet at the Oscars with an Oscar nomination. And the awards actually don’t mean anything except that they validated this effort; it means that somebody out there appreciates it. The films have gone on to impact people in untold ways, which really makes me feel that whatever I have to suffer while making it is totally worth it. And of course there’s tons of joy involved as well.

AD: How do you stay inspired?

RB: I have had the good fortune of getting very positive feedback on the films that I’ve made. So when I go to a screening of one of my movies, there’s sort of a natural selective thing that happens — people who don’t like the movie, in general, leave right away. People who do like the movie stick around to tell you that. And that’s great because it means you pretty much only hear from people who really like the movie. So it gives you a totally skewed perspective on how much people love your movie, but it is very encouraging because the people who like it are getting something authentic out of the film and the experience. So just talking to people is super inspiring and keeps me motivated because I realize that all of the effort that we put into making a film is worth it. The impact it has on people is profound and positive.

Happy is now streaming on Netflix and is available on DVD at Amazon. You can also check for screenings near you!
Happy official website
Follow @TheHappyMovie on Twitter

Alisa Damaso

Alisa Damaso is an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer based
in the San Francisco Bay Area. She enjoys the magic of the outdoors,
watching campy horror movies, and singing songs about food getting
stuck in her teeth. Her hand is married to a pencil and she never leaves
the house without a sketchbook.

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