Happen Films: How a couple are making documentaries to change the world

6:04 pm on 6 January 2022

If you have an interest in documentaries and you spend any time on YouTube, chances are you will have come across a film called Fools and Dreamers.

Featuring a botanist who looks like Santa Claus, it's got a whopping 2.6 million (and growing) views and tells the story of bush regeneration on a Banks Peninsula block, using the seemingly unlikely - and once doubted - technique of gorse as a nursery species for native plants.

That film may have then led you to a trove of similar documentaries on topics from tiny house builds to permaculture food forests, zero waste living and much more.

They all come from a channel called Happen Films, which in six years has pumped out a prodigious 50 videos.

What makes that all the more impressive is that Happen Films isn't some large production company.

It's a self-taught couple who get part time help from just two others. That couple is Antoinette Wilson and Jordan Osmond, and they want to inspire people.

Antoinette Wilson and Jordan Osmond.

The couple behind Happen Films, Antoinette Wilson and Jordan Osmond. Photo: Happen Films / Wild Feet Productions

I wanted to know more about Happen Films, and when I dialled in to speak to the pair in early December, they were preparing to travel to Upper Moutere - between Nelson and Motueka - to see if a landshare on another couple's property might make an ideal location for them to build a tiny house on wheels, grow their own food, and contribute to some regeneration.

They're a couple who walk the talk.

After a year living in Christchurch, they're ready to escape city life.

They have moved around a bit over the past few years - a stint in the Bay of Plenty preceded time in Little River on Banks Peninsula, before they spent 2021 in Ōtautahi.

It was an urban change of pace that allowed them to spend more time with friends - but come the start of summer they were hankering for the quiet life again.

"I've been rural for 10 years and Jordan for six years and we just thought we'd have some city time," Antoinette says.

"But now we have to get out of it ... We're really craving the quiet of the country."

This month they're planning to start a tiny home build.

"We saved up for the build but we don't have land so we put a call out just seeing if anybody was into a land share arrangement, which is kind of becoming more and more popular in New Zealand and generally," Antoinette says.

"We had this amazing reply from a couple up there."

After an initial zoom meeting they met in person and confirmed the location was right for them.

The build is going to be a new experience for the couple - for the first time, they're going to turn the camera on themselves and document the progress.

Funding for the house has come from money made through Jordan's secondary YouTube channel - one that features campervan fit-outs.

So how did a self-taught couple get to this point in a few short years?

"We were fortunate, in a way, because we came into this space at a time when… in that sphere, there wasn't anybody making films that were high quality about living more simply, and permaculture and sustainability," Antoinette says.

They see themselves as "somewhere in the middle of film makers and YouTubers - probably leaning more towards YouTubers".

"So we came into it and really just had a niche more or less just to ourselves, which we were super lucky to have because it just meant that our films were shared very widely because literally it was like it was a sponge and people were just sucking up all of this information and knowledge ... Even if it's not something that they could see themselves doing, it felt like some kind of living the dream or something I guess, and nobody else was doing that at the time."

Behind the scenes filming for Fools and Dreamer with botanist Hugh D. Wilson

Behind the scenes of filming for Fools and Dreamers with botanist Hugh D. Wilson Photo: Happen Films / Jason Hosking

Back to the start

The couple met during a project in Australia in 2015, which can probably be described as something of a social-environmental experiment.

Jordan was teaching himself how to use cameras and make films, while developing an interest in environment and climate.

He teamed up with an academic from Melbourne who was developing a community on a 20-acre block in Victoria. Ten people lived on the property for a year and were essentially self-sufficient.

They also decided to make a film about the experience - growing food, building tiny houses.

After a call for applications, about 50 people applied from around the world, and one of those who made it in was Antoinette.

"About halfway through the year we got together and also started to do the filming."

With Antoinette's background in book publishing, she had a history of storytelling that she could lend to the project. She describes Jordan as an "innate storyteller".

But, as she says, nobody in the project had ever been part of a film. It ended up being a combination of documenting the "super challenging" experience and interviews with experts who could speak to the issues being explored.

It was a "jump off the deep end" moment.

Budget film, 2 millions views

The film cost $11,000 to make and has clocked up about 2 million views.

"It's been shortlisted and it's been selected for lots of festivals around the world, it's crazy," Antoinette says.

That same year, the couple travelled up the New South Wales coast interviewing people in similar communities, and realised "how hungry people were for those stories".

"During that road trip we filmed with two permaculture farms and one of them in particular did really well - (it was) about limestone permaculture," Jordan says.

"It showed us there's a real desire for this type of content, and we loved the process of it so we thought that the year project was finished, we could go to New Zealand."

The plan, initially, was a three-month road trip in Aotearoa to make 12 short films.

"It ended up being like two years and resulted in - I don't know - seven short films and the feature film 'Living the Change'."

The premiere for the documentary Living the Change.

The Living the Change premiere Photo: Happen Films / Jason Hosking

The first couple of years of Happen Films were run the way any initiative worth its salt seems to be - on the smell of an oily rag.

"But that's kind of the space that we were in. We were living really, really, simply at this stage and now we're probably a little bit more comfortable," Antoinette says.

"It's always a little bit fragile, but we really have built our lives in order to be super resilient to the coming and going of funds in the Hidden Films bank account."

These days, things are a bit different.

About of a third of their funding comes from YouTube ad revenue. They want to remove that eventually.

But the rest of it is almost all donations, philanthropic support and crowdfunding.

For example, two brothers who run the Namaste Foundation have helped them immensely in the past, and for four years now, the brothers have made monthly Patreon contributions

"Our audience is a huge part of what enables us to keep on making films," Antoinette says.

"[We've also] had people contribute financially or in other ways because they see it as a sort of a carbon offset.

"It's kind of like 'I'm living this really high impact life and I can't change that at the moment, so I'm going give you some money so that I am doing something'."

Antoinette would prefer they find other ways to come to reduce their impact "but I'm also really aware of the fact that they've acknowledged their impact being just the hugest first step".

"And I'd like to think that also the financial contribution that they're making to us, which enables us to keep making amazing films (that have) an impact, that it's a worthwhile impact because people are making changes."

It's probably not surprising that the couple are self aware.

They make it clear it's important for them to acknowledge they're white, educated and from middle class families with "all the privileges that come with that background".

"We get to choose to 'live simply' specifically because of that, which it's important to stay present with," Antoinette says.

Striking a chord

The pair are right about the hunger for content they are creating - their films continue to clock up views.

A million views here, three million there (that's on their 2016 documentary A Simpler Way).

So what is it about their films that resonate with people?

Antoinette says they focus on solutions - and it seems like people watch their videos because they need to see a way forward that's exciting and positive.

There's so much "negative" news attention given to the issues we face, Jordan says.

"It's important to know these things and the statistics and the direction we're headed on, but if you don't have any tangible vision for an alternative to it, we're just going to feel despair, and I think that's what resonated with people...

"The idea is to give a glimpse into another way of living. Being alternative to this destructive, industrial, capitalistic way that has taken over so much of the world.

"It's interesting for us as well, you know, it's been a learning journey. We've been going on these journeys over last few years filming with people and hearing their stories as a way to learn for ourselves and then share those learnings with people as well as like hey, there is an alternative to this.

"Here's what you can practically do on an individual level, on a community level without waiting for governments to do something about it."


Ever felt like a documentary you've watched made you want to change your whole life?

People who've watched Jordan and Antoinette's films have actually followed through.

Feedback helps the couple stay motivated, Antoinette says.

"We get an amazing number of emails from people saying that they've made sometimes quite major lifestyle changes as a result of watching the films, which is really important to us as well because it motivates us to keep going, so it does feel like we're having an impact," she says.

Some of the stories are pretty wild.

For example, the couple recently visited Robert and Robyn Guyton, who live in Riverton, Southland.

After a Happen Films documentary on the Guytons' permaculture food forest five years ago, people flew across the world to visit the property, Antoinette says - although she points out that's not an action they support due to the carbon footprint involved.

"Somebody helicoptered into the paddock next door and invited them to come and manage a food forest on an island in the Pacific."

Another example: "One of our film subjects had a guy from Deutsche Bank get in touch and say (the film) changed his life and said 'I've left my job, what should I do now?'

"I think our ultimate goal is to not have goals. That's been a process in itself - coming to that conclusion that we that we don't want to confine ourselves to that conventional model of setting goals and so on," Antoinette says.

"I think ultimately, what we want to do is be inspired and share inspiring stories and the way that we do that can evolve organically from here to eternity because I don't believe they'll ever be a shortage of people with inspiring stories to tell."

Constantly learning

"This process that we have been on of wanting to simplify how we live, so living more simply, not just you know, to reduce costs and obviously environmental impact, but also just the personal, the value that you get from doing this," Antoinette says.

The notion of being busy is ingrained in society today, and they've had to work hard not to look for constant growth, they say.

"We really want to stay being a team with our awesome two helpers who are just invaluable."

When it's put to them that they're walking to the talk when it comes to their lifestyle, Jordan says they're doing the best they can.

"It's a journey that we're constantly evolving and improving on. There's so many things in our life that you know are compromises and anybody trying to live by their ethics is going to have compromises so we see ourselves as taking steps to living our values and living in a way that feels right for us.

"The next big step for that is the tiny house having a place of our own and then finding community, being on land, growing more food.

"We've incorporated so much of what we've learned over the last six years of making films because we really believe in it and we're not making films because they get lots of views. We're doing it because it's what we're excited about, what we believe in, and we want to share that with other people too."

Antoinette Wilson and Jordan Osmond.

Antoinette Wilson and Jordan Osmond. Photo: Happen Films / Jason Hosking

Living a lifestyle similar to what their documentaries are about helps them communicate the reality, Antoinette says.

They learn from everyone they film with, which means they've evolved alongside Happen Films.

For Antoinette, what's been a profound learning is that "the only solution is to live with less - and that that's actually a really exciting notion".

It's not about living like a caveman, she says.

"That's a big thing with our films. A lot of the people that we film with, our people who are showing that living with less is creating much more for them in their life and they are thriving.

"As we go forward … I'm not interested in technological solutions because I don't believe that's the right mentality to approach what we're facing.

Jordan says they will always use technology - like solar panels on their tiny home - but the problem is "the foregrounding of technology as the main answer to these problems".

"The endless search for a solution to the problem that's created by technology and industrial civilisation in the first place is kind of never-ending cycle."

We need to find a way to live that works in the modern context, they say.

"How do we do that while healing the planet as well?," Jordan asks.

"Not just doing less harm, but how do we actually regenerate? Because it's not just enough to live sustainably, we, you know, we can't just sustain things - we need to actually heal what damage that has been done."

Antoinette says that involves healing both land and people.

"I think that that's become much more of a focus for us over the last few years. The more we're learning we're seeing that this isn't just putting permaculture practices into place.

"People ... tend to forget about people and how we're treating each other and how we are relating with each other and how we connect.

"The problems can feel so big at times is because they are all interconnected," Jordan says.

"That's why the solutions need to be interconnected and holistic."

So what's the aim of their work?

Jordan says if there's a takeaway from their films, they hope people will be "inspired to find one thing that they're passionate about".

"Start there and give that ago and then once you've incorporated that into your life and it's just part of what you do, then it's like OK, what can I do next?

"Then you can follow what you're excited about and in no time you'll be living quite differently.

"I think it's a journey and it's exciting and I hope people get that from seeing the stories that we share."

Inspiring people take action is about "finding a balance between the urgency and the reality of what can be done", Antoinette says.

And that action must be grass roots - not led by the government or those at the top - but individual and community action.

"You can be making contributions in all sorts of small ways, and if you feel empowered by that, if we all re-education ourselves to understand that we are incredibly powerful, then that to me is how we are going to reach that critical mass and see true change happening."

What next?

Their latest feature is a 40-minute documentary about an enterprise called Common Unity.

Located in Lower Hutt, it's having a huge impact on its community, Antoinette says.

This is a documentary about an organisation which has developed a relationship with Kainga Ora and is working in the tenants' backyards to teach them to grow food.

"They turn their whole back yards into food gardens, from which they harvest what they need and then the rest goes back to the community kitchen where they're making 2000 meals a week that go out to schools."

They also work with a local marae that has a pataka kai.

"The work that they're doing together is amazing. They've developed whole food gardens and an orchard and they've got weekly (food) boxes going out. They're just doing really, really important stuff.

"It's not just about the quality of the food. It's about where it's come from and how it's been grown. Who it's been grown by and the connection between the members of the community and those kids understanding where that food's coming from… so many people are like that - we don't understand where our food comes from," Antoinette says.

"Common Unity has been very active about getting kids into the garden, teaching them to grow the food, but also, if the food that's coming to them at lunchtime is food that they know was grown up at Rimutaka Prison - sometimes by their dads - grown in their house, in the backyard sometimes of friends of theirs and the youth facility… that's a whole different connection with your community."

Jordan says the enterprise is empowering the community.

"It's showing people how to grow food. It's giving them the skills to do it themselves.

"There's a great quote from Julia, our main interviewee and the founder of Common Unity at the end of the film - she basically says the measure of success for Common Unity would be to dismantle the facility that they've created and it's just a part of the community - that they don't need to be there facilitating - it's just happening."

That documentary - Together We Grow - is coming out in early February.

Interviewing Julia for Together We Grow.

Interviewing Julia for Together We Grow. Photo: Happen Films

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