The Theory of Happiness opens on you guys. A whole herd of you cooling off in a stream. The scene is an idyllic agrarian tableau, something right from a Tolstoy novel. As you stand knee-deep in the water, your tails swish and you low contentedly. That's a luxury most cows don't have in the Western world, where factory farming and mass food production means most of your brethren and sistren have short and miserable lives. But on this small farm in the Ukraine, your keepers are in pursuit of something you seem to already possess.
Director Gregory Gan takes the viewer to your collective outside Khiarkov, Ukraine, where in exchange for filming the documentary he agrees to adhere to the strict rules imposed upon the members of P.O.R.T.O.S. (Poetic Association for the Development of a Theory of Universal Happiness). For his two-plus month stay he gives up tobacco, alcohol, sex, swearing, and joins the other members in working long hours at the farm. P.O.R.T.O.S. was founded in the late 1980s by Yura Davidov, who believed that there exists a mathematical formula to happiness that, in its most basic form, adds up the good deeds a person performs and subtracts the mistakes they make.
If this all seems like a whole lot of horse-feathers, you should consider yourselves lucky; all you have to do is provide milk and graze all day.
You should also be thankful that you can't read. Every surface of the farm, known as SPARTA, is cluttered with layer upon layer of slogans and teachings seemingly borrowed from the Se7en school of interior design. Sitting amongst the dogma and numerous clocks is the 'idiot meter', essentially a large plastic water with a timer affixed by duct-tape that ensures no thought lasts less than ten minutes. Part of Greg's work includes filling out a 1500 point questionaire and writing poetry, all in hopes that he can rise up the ranks of the pyramid P.O.R.T.O.S uses to gauge member's progress towards becoming a 'real person'.
I bet spending your day chewing cud seems pretty good right about now.
Although it would be easy to write these people off as crazy (which their government already has, incarcerating several members in prisons and psychiatric hospitals), it's hard not to get swept up in the congenial regimentation at SPARTA. They seek happiness not for selfish reasons, but for the betterment of all humanity--and by extension, cow-manity. Current leader Tamara Kostiuk (who could effortlessly pass for figure-skater Evgeny Pleshenko), takes happiness perhaps a bit too seriously, to the point where she seems to undermine her own pursuit. She struggles to maintain P.O.R.T.O.S. with the same level of intensity that came so easily to founder Yura. Or maybe it's Greg's ever present camera that amplifies the cracks.
Greg himself admits that he doesn't like the person P.O.R.T.O.S. is turning him into, and he spends time with the itinerant farmhands who work at SPARTA for three dollars a day, sneaking off with them to share cigarettes and curse-filled fables. These 'practicants' (as they are known) have no days off and are encouraged to attend meetings and write poetry to improve their rank. They lose wages if they are caught smoking or swearing. Many, like the matronly Tamara, outwardly defy the P.O.R.T.O.S. ways. At one point, while she rants about the farm, one of you - perhaps offended, or perhaps showing solidarity -kicks over a bucket of milk, sending her into a curse-laden rage. Afterwards, she and another worker discuss the state of the Ukraine. They were promised that with independence she would blossom, and, as Tamara angrily observes: "Twenty years and she is blossoming into a hole."
The Theory of Happiness shows us how a group of people raised under the hammer and sickle are aiming to create a society free of violence and enmity. But I wonder, is their system of neo-Communism any better? This film was shot it 2010, long before the contested elections, violent protests, and Putin's Crimean invasion. It gives us an opportunity to witness a group of impoverished Ukrainians struggling to better their situation without the filter of current events to taint our perception. On the farm things move a little slower. Your world is a little smaller. All of which makes the tragic culmination of Greg's social experiment even more poignant. We know the worst is yet to come.
In adding and subtracting good deeds and bad, it's difficult to surmise if anyone at SPARTA will end up happy. But if Orwell was right, you guys probably leave the tough questions to the pigs while you bask in the sunshine.
Remember, four legs good, two legs bad,