What is true happiness? For many years, the American Dream included the accumulation of material things – a house, car, money – along with the image of the “ideal” family. But is that version of happiness still relevant in 2016? Academy Award winner Pamela Tanner Boll examines this and more in her latest documentary, “A Small Good Thing.”
Shot primarily in western Massachusetts in the Berkshires, the feature-length documentary follows innovative farmer Sean Stanton, social work student Tim Durrin and yoga teacher Mark Gerow, whose earlier careers in the armed forces have now shifted to service of a different kind; Jen and Pete Salinetti, a college-educated couple with two small children who have chosen to be farmers as a way to connect with their community; and Shirley Edgerton, community activist and founder of both the Youth Alive Step Team and the Women of Color Giving Circle.
Boll, director and executive producer on the film, said the documentary came to her as a natural part of her personal journey. “It came about for me personally because I in my own life had had a lot of wonderful things. I had just finished another film and it went really well and it was well received and sometimes I was still feeling like, ‘Is this is it? What is going on?’”
She started reading the “Science of Happiness” and found that when she talked to most people, they were stressed and felt pulled in many directions. “It didn’t matter if they were in a high-income bracket or a low one. Even technology, which makes us available 24/7, had some negative impact on people’s lives,” she said. “There’s all sorts of research that shows that your blood chemistry changes in the natural world. I wanted to look at people who were living a life that had some outdoors in it. We studied having a connection to a higher purpose and that just means beyond you and a connection to a community. That led me to the Berkshires which was an area that I knew.”
“A Small Good Thing” is a film that has many layers. It touches on family, politics, addiction, the environment, post traumatic stress disorder and sacrifice. Boll has found a way to wind the intricate details of her subjects’ lives into a story that highlights our desire as human beings to connect with our neighbors and the reality that even living a simple life takes hard work. It’s a reminder that happiness isn’t a destination, but a daily choice.
Boll won an Oscar at the 2005 Academy Awards when the documentary she executive produced, “Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light District” took home Best Documentary. She said the good news about winning an Oscar is that people take you seriously and it allowed her to easily put together a team on her next film. However, accolades can bring their own kind of pressure.
“I was the executive producer but it really was the director’s [win] … The truth is, and anyone will tell you this, filmmaking is so darn hard. Getting the money to make a film, figuring out how to make it, figuring out the right the team. I can’t think of acclaim I’m going to get. You just keep at it. It comes with building a team of like-minded folks. Some people are there to be your cheerleaders. Some people are there to call you to do the right work. Building your team is important. I have a wonderful group of folks on my team, professionally and personally,” Boll said.
It took about five years to make “A Small Good Thing,” including research, pre and post production. Now that the film is available for screenings, Boll hopes that people will host their own viewings and use it as an opportunity to examine their lives and their version of happiness.
“Our sense of wellbeing is more dependent on what we do every day than what we do episodically. One of the messages of the film is that what you do every day and not necessarily those highlights is what makes you happy … We think the good life is easy. It’s comfort. We go for comfort and security and, in fact, there’s no evidence anywhere that comfort and security will make you feel better,” Boll said.
For more on the documentary and to see the film, visit www.asmallgoodthingfilm.com.
*Update – Feb, 24, 2017
“A Small Good Thing” is now available on Netflix.