A Place Called Ananda
[Hansa Productions, 2013, 1 hr 35 minutes]
Finding Happiness is a film that effortlessly combines fact and fiction. Its main character is a cynical journalist from Manhattan, Juliet, who is sent out to visit and write about Ananda Village, a multi-denominational spiritual community based on the ideals of Indian yogi and guru Paramahansa Yogananda that is located near Nevada City, California,. While Juliet and her boss are fictional, the community and its featured members are real, and their activities are showcased in a way that directly reflects reality.
At first Juliet is skeptical about visiting the Ananda community, but after meeting the members, learning yoga and meditation getting back to nature, she forgets about life back in New York City for a few days. As the Ananda members meet Juliet, we get to hear from some of the community’s most insightful and well-spoken members, including the late Swami Kriyananda, who founded the featured Ananda community (the first one ever), nearly 50 years ago. As Juliet interacts with Swami and the others, it’s easy to see the transformation within her. She begins to soften and relax and at the end of her stay, she says she would like to return to Ananda Village again someday.
Urbanites can identify with Juliet, drawing them into Ananda’s story. “If I’m not back in a week, come and get me,” she says, skeptical about her visit, which director Ted Nicolaou says symbolizes exactly how a typical, non-spiritual person from the West would react to this kind of venture.
Nicolaou understood the need for the film to be presented in the way that it eventually was. Originally, Kriyananda had written a script, but Ted wanted to take a documentary approach. Finally, after realizing it was best to let the people of Ananda speak candidly, with some guidelines, they settled on using the unconventional hybrid of fiction and reality.
The creation of Finding Happiness was not a speedy process. Executive producer Shivani Lucki says there were three and a half years between the time Kriyananda was inspired with the idea and the time when the film was finally completed. However, it was an enjoyable process for all. A process that, according to Shivani, was driven by grace. She believes grace got her through her own role, as she had no prior filmmaking experience, and grace also led the Ananda community to the best collaborators. One of these was the aforementioned Ted Nicolaou. His friend Roberto Bessi, who produced the film and originally contacted him about working on it, knew he was compassionate and peaceful enough to work with the people of Ananda.
Ananda was also led to Elizabeth Röhm, the actress playing Juliet. In a synchronous twist, the first agent whom Shivani and her associates spoke to offered to put the crew in contact with Elizabeth. She confidently told them there was no one else who could play the role as well as she could, so she was given the job. She had grown up in a spiritual environment, spending a lot of time in ashrams because her mother was involved with transcendental meditation, and she wanted to get back to her roots. But since she had been away from spiritual communities for quite a long time, she entered the California village unaccustomed to community life, just as Juliet did. She stayed at Ananda throughout the filming and went through a similar transformation to her character.
The combination of fiction and reality worked so well because the majority of the people involved in the film are Ananda members or are sympathetic to their ideals. If the people of Ananda had been forced to work with a director and a lead actress who did not understand them at all, it’s doubtful that the real story of the community would have been portrayed as effectively as it was. Lucki says Nicolaou was the ideal choice for a director. “He got it. He got the beauty and the simplicity and the genuineness of our life, and I think he really captured it.” As for the transitions between fact and fiction, those flowed so nicely since there was always a thread of Elizabeth’s real experience, having returned to a spiritual community after living in Los Angeles, within each fictional scene.
As well as being authentic, the film itself manages to maintain a light, slightly humorous tone unlike many documentaries that end up boring audiences because their approaches are too serious and cerebral. The interspersing of fictional elements along with some humour present a relatable context that keeps viewers interested and entertained.
Watch the Finding Happiness trailer below:
image: William Baker Photography