There are three strands that come together to make up Doug Morrione’s Fairways To Happiness. The first is the documentarian moving from New York to Dubai after his wife gets a job there, and finding himself adrift in this new city. The second is an emerging interest in the pursuit and meaning of happiness. And the third is spending a lot of his free time on Dubai’s golf courses, where he meets English émigré Eugene Kerrigan, who has devoted himself to a near impossible goal for an amateur player: completing 18 holes in no more than 80 shots.
These three points – perhaps links would be an apter word – intersect and triangulate as the United Arab Emirates turn out to be particularly preoccupied with happiness – indeed it is the first country in the world to have appointed a federal Minister of Happiness, and is actively reforming its education system to maximise the well-being of its youngest residents. Meanwhile Eugene’s golfing mission, on a paradisiac path of grass, sand and water paved with frustrations and failures, proves a perfect metaphor for the imperfect quest for happiness.
The conclusion of Eugene’s quest – and of the film itself – is very much of the ‘it’s the journey not the destination’ variety, and if that seems clichéd and pat, then perhaps it is in the nature of universal truths also to sound truistic. Yet as Morrione follows Eugene’s endless golfing efforts, he also interviews a number of other strangers in this strange land, as well as local and international experts on happiness, and from this polyphony of subjects, a more complex, even contradictory picture emerges.
While some propose that happiness is bound up in economic security or a social circle, Khenpo Dr Ngawang Jorden of Nepal distinguishes momentary joy from a more permanent, more spiritual state of contentment, and suggests that the detachment required for the latter involves an avoidance of friendships and material wealth. Generosity is also posited as a criterion for happiness, and is embodied by the Reverend Doctor Paul Burt, who gives much of his time to interceding on behalf of stranded ship labourers. Social media are viewed as both impediments and aids to happiness. Exponents of ‘positive psychology’ like Dr Martin E.P. Seligman, Dr. Louise Lambert and David Bott emphasise that schools should accommodate feelings as much as facts, and should encourage free thought and play.
What is important here is that Dubai is paying close attention to these experts’ often radical reforms, and building its ever-expanding cityscape around such principles. Accordingly, Morrione’s locally focused (if globe-trotting) Fairways to Happiness is all at once a philosophical and psychological exploration, and a city symphony, presenting Morrione’s host nation in a utopian light to match all the bright sunshine and sparkling surfaces – while merely hinting at financial disparities and theocratic impositions in the background. This is, after all, a film concerned with optimistic investments in the future more than with problems in the present, even if it does at times come across as enthusiastic state PR.
As for Eugene himself, and his ultimate, understated success in his ambitions, it may be that the journey is what counts, but one gets the impression that it is not so much all the bunkers, lakes and copses that mark his path to happiness, but rather Eugene’s own rather sunny, gently self-mocking disposition. For in fully embracing, and enjoying, the utter absurdity of his endeavours on the fairway, Eugene appears to have hit upon a special formula for an open outlook on life. That he is himself a father, and spends his working hours with Curiosity Lab winning over young children to the wonder of science, leaves the impression that his own happiness may well be passed on to the next generation in his adopted home.
strap: Doug Morrione’s documentary feature is all at once study in contentment, Dubai city symphony and golfing parable
© Anton Bitel