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The Universal Power of Joy

We live for these moments when we can announce the completion of another film project, representing years of labor, love, and creative teamwork. You have come to expect great things from us, and we couldn’t be more excited to share the news about this OPS-affiliated film project, Mission: Joy–Finding Happiness in Troubled Times, that is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this week!

Here are OPS Executive Director and Academy Award-winning filmmaker, Louie Psihoyos’, reflections on his newest film project.

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I have always looked at the films we choose to make at OPS as a way to scale social change. I tell the crew and staff: ‘we’re not making movies, we’re starting movements.’ 

Since we made The Cove, a documentary about dolphin and porpoise hunting for human consumption, the eating of small cetaceans in Japan is down over 90%. Our second film, Racing Extinction, a documentary about species extinction and global climate change, led to laws that now protect some of the world’s most endangered species.  In the first thirty days that The Game Changersa film about vegan athleteswas on Netflix, searches for the term “plant-based diet” went up 350% worldwide.  

In the race to accelerate social change, I cannot think of a more powerful peaceful weapon than film. 

However, there is an underlying problem in our culture that needs to be addressed. First, we have lost sight of what makes us human and what gives us meaning.  Trying to solve environmental and social issues without addressing this is like trying to steer a ship without a rudder.  

Success, as measured by Western standards, is making lots of money, a prestigious job title, power, and owning a big house and car—but once we attain those things, we are often left with a sense of emptiness.  We feel this emptiness because, as the Dalai Lama says in The Book of Joy, true happiness can only come from within ourselves, not from outside. I had read this special book that featured the compilation of the dialogue, wisdom, and friendship between the Dalai Lama and his buddy Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the spiritual leader who had led South Africa out of Apartheid.  

 A few years back, I found myself at a dinner party quite randomly sitting next to the publisher and author of this book, Doug Abrams. He asked what I did for a living, and I told him that I made documentaries.  He then shared with me they had filmed the historic dialogues of these two great spiritual leaders and was wondering if they could be made into a documentary. 

He and activist filmmaker Peggy Callahan had filmed the week-long meeting that took place in Dharmsala, India and collected about 15 hours of footage.  After reviewing the footage from these two world leaders who refer to themselves as mischievous spiritual brothers, something happened to me. I felt more accepting of others, less anger, more patience.  Most incredibly, I felt lasting pangs of joy.

The story of The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu is an improbable ‘buddy’ story.  On the surface, they could not be more different. One is from Asia, the other from Africa. One is a Buddhist, the other a Christian. One grew up in a thousand room palace, the other from the slums of Africa. However, both men won Nobel Prizes and are united by their struggle against authoritarian regimes.  Given their history, I expected both men to be somber or morose, but I could not have been more charmed by their constant ribbing of each other and the genuine affection they displayed for each other. In their struggles to unite their peoples, they have discovered secrets of happiness that are universal.

The Dalai Lama is quite a scientifically-learned man.  After fleeing into exile from his homeland in Tibet some 60 years ago after the Chinese invasion, he has aligned himself with some of the great scientific researchers of our time.  With his urging, these scientists have strived to use modern technology to discover what happens to our brain when we are more mindful and compassionate.  What they found is that when we are kind, our brain physically changes. Like a muscle, it grows and sprouts new connections. Our blood changes, too. Even our RNA changes and we become more resistant to disease, and people who are kind also live longer.

To make this film, we would need a lot of archival footage to tell the backstory of these two great humans.  There have been quite a few documentaries made about the Dalai Lama, but they all use a lot of the same recycled archival footage.  Co-director Peggy Callahan was wondering how to get around the archival issue and I told her that every family has a box of unsorted photographs—we just have to find the person who knows where to find the Dalai Lama’s box.  I thought it would take a few months, but Peggy found it in a few days, including never-before-seen footage of the Dalai Lama hiking in the Himalayas and having snowball fights with his friends and family. 

Since Archbishop Tutu’s early life was not documented at all, and the Dalai Lama’s very little, we knew we would also need some animation to cover his backstory.  For these sequences, we brought in Oscar-winning Pixar animation producer, Darla Anderson and former head of Netflix Animation, Damien de Froberville.

We assembled an all-star team to make a film.  Producer/writer Mark Monroe, who has helped make all OPS films, brought in his friend, the Academy Award-winning editor Andrew Buckland.  Our own veteran editor, Matt Stamm, and Joshua Altman brought it home after Andrew went in to work on the new Indiana Jones film. Multiple Emmy Award-winning composer Dominic Messinger wrote a beautiful score.

I feel that what our team made together is a powerful antidote to problems of our time, a way to bring us back in alignment to what makes us human.  

A lot of people tell us that after they see an OPS film, they feel changed.  What the scientists have learned is that physically changing your brain for the better only takes 90 minutes—maybe it is just a coincidence, but that is how long our films are.   Maybe 90 minutes is all we really need to change the world. 

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