Sundance Features

January 16, 2007

Sophie Barthes, Happiness

"I traveled a lot with the film, and it's funny how people can't deal with 'happiness' being an abstract thing -- putting it in a box was disturbing to some people."

Elzbieta Czyzweska stars in Sophie Barthes' short film Happiness

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

So for the record, tell me what Happiness is about.

It's about a factory worker who buys a box of happiness. She has no idea what to do with happiness, so she returns the box and goes back to her life.

A factory worker with a box of happiness. Where did the idea come from?

I just wanted to try to deal with abstractions -- an abstract thing -- and trying to bring to the screen various abstract ideas. It's a funny thing to do, because in the US, people have difficulty dealing with abstraction, and I had a very different reaction. I traveled a lot with the film, and it's funny how people can't deal with "happiness" being an abstract thing -- putting it in a box was disturbing to some people. Other people thought it was funny.

When did you make the film? And did you shoot locally?

I made it in March of last year. We shot in Brighton Beach, but the factory was in Boston.

You mentioned people's reactions at festivals. Where has Happiness screened thus far?

It's played in about 25 festivals already. It's kind of overwhelming; I had to do five prints of it. It won best live action short under 15 minutes at Palm Springs ShortFest.

At least as far as the filmmaking community goes, New York is a pretty small town. Your partner Andrij Parekh shot Half Nelson, and you mentioned you went to the festival last year. How are those ties helping you prepare or know what to expect?

Yeah, Ryan and Anna went through the same steps a year earlier with their short, and then they went to the Sundance lab. And when you're friends with a community of young filmmakers, you see each others efforts and we trying to follow each other and help each other. It gives you a lot of hope and encouragement. Sundance is an amazing platform for young filmmakers; it helps to get an agent, it boosts your confidence. I think it's like saving three or four years of your career when you get into this competition or into the labs.

So how did you feel about getting into Sundance?

Oh, I was really happy. I was excited to see last year how well they treat you. People really go to see the shorts at Sundance; the screenings were packed. Sometimes you go to a festival and nobody shows up for the shorts. There, everything's sold out. It's nice to screen your short for a full audience.

But does that make you nervous at all?

Nervous? Well, yeah. You're always nervous, especially because it's a comedy, and you can feel the atmosphere in the audience. You can definitely tell when people don’t laugh. It does make me nervous. Usually I don't stay for the entire screening; I just come for the Q&A. But sometimes they give you five or six screenings, and I should be OK by the sixth.

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