In 2014, my wife and I moved to Dubai. I had been working in the trenches in NYC for years as an editor and producer for many networks and post-production companies, as well as a professor of video and film at The New School graduate program in Media Studies. Much of my extended family hailed from Brooklyn, and they all said the same thing about New York: “Get in for ten years, master a skill, then get out before your life goes by in a flash.”
Escape From New York
Perhaps it was a combination of general “New York fatigue,” as I had given up on the subway, and was furiously riding my bike 10 miles through traffic to work downtown—only to sit in an edit bay and slog through hundreds of hours of poorly conceived and shot Reality TV footage—but either way, when my wife suggested we follow her job to Dubai, I said, “Fine, let’s go.” I had no idea what to expect from living in the Middle East (and my parents were worried about the region) but at least I wouldn’t be berating taxi drivers from my bicycle in traffic and urging strangers to pick up their litter on the street.
Introduction to Life in Dubai
The adjustment to life in Dubai was perplexing and difficult at times. But, the country has an 85% expat population, so it’s really more like living in a Muslim-governed international experiment. My new friends came from a multitude of different nationalities including British, Norwegian, Ukrainian, Russian, Filipino, Indian, and Emirati. Many of them were in the same boat—finding their way to Dubai for one reason or another and trying to make a new life for their families in a very foreign city.
The Minister of Happiness
The leadership in The UAE is determined to modernize living and to focus seriously on well-being and “happiness” for the government, private sector professionals, and the population at large. When I arrived, the World Happiness Report was just becoming a popular study, and the UAE was the first country to create the position of Minister of Happiness, all of which was a far cry from the daily grind and stress producing “man-up” ethos of living and working in Manhattan.
I read the World Happiness Report and after talking informally with experts, was taken by the idea that happiness could be quantified and curious about how the science of the relatively new field of positive psychology was being employed to improve life and learning environments for students in schools. I saw clearly the stark differences between this kind of forward thinking and what I had come to view as a stalled and jaded outlook on the meaning, purpose, and progress of my life in New York. I began to wonder whether or not other expats in Dubai were having the same reaction to the new ways of positive thinking and well being living that I saw.
Digging Deeper — Talking to Experts
Fairways to Happiness is the result of my efforts to dig deeper into these issues and to come up with insights into real life in modern Dubai, to prompt thinking about one’s happiness and well-being, to examine the science of positive psychology and education, and to spark an interesting and productive discussion among viewer audiences.
I interviewed dozens of expats from many countries and asked them to juxtapose, as I had, their home-country life and work with their new realities in Dubai. I consulted experts, including Martin Seligman, the pioneer of positive psychology, local positive education professionals and others, including a monk, a priest, a veterinarian, and a life coach—all of whom contributed to the narrative.
Finding a "Foil" — Eugene, The Amateur Golfer
Towards the end of my interviewing and after producing a rough cut, it became clear that, while I had a wealth of expert and expat “talking heads,” the film needed a lighter foil—a counterpoint to bring the discussion down to earth, to keep the audience engaged, and to make the content more relatable on a human level.
I was wrestling with this conundrum, considering a falcon expert who flew his birds from hot-air balloons at 5000 feet, and a deep-sea diving environmentalist—both of which were not everyday activities and would have made the production more complicated—when a friend suggested that I profile an amateur golfer trying to lower their score on the course, a “quest that often mirrors the emotional rollercoaster of life.”
Of course, golf can be elitist (which we address in the film), but Eugene Kerrigan, our golfer, while admittedly materialistic, is not. I had no idea how he would “perform” on camera, but it’s been a pleasant surprise to see that audiences have found him endearing, humorous, interesting and self-deprecating—an excellent combination I was fortunate to capture in the film.
There are other mini-narratives and themes in the film, which resonate with audiences to varying degrees, based on their own personal experiences. But, Eugene’s story became central, and the arc of his quest on the golf course worked well with the overall trajectory of the film.
Rolling Out The Film
The film has been screened in theaters, including Cinema Akil — the only independent art-house cinema in Dubai —and at The Maine International Film Festival and I’ve been struck by the audiences’ reactions and exit interviews—particularly in the way in which they, like myself, felt motivated to look more carefully at one’s own life and perspective on personal and societal well-being—important and central topics that are often overlooked. You can see more of this on our IMDb page...
On a final note, I chose to avoid common (though not unimportant) subjects often covered in this region—subjects such as human and labor rights, theocratic society, and geo-political tensions. Although I touch on them candidly and obliquely at times, I did my best to “thread the needle” without overtly “toeing the line.” I feel content about the film's message, as it was never intended to directly address such concerns.
I hope you enjoy the documentary and look forward to a growing discussion about a variety of people and a range of topics that were a pleasure to explore as a filmmaker.
Doug Morrione (Director)