Home #Hwoodtimes LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM – Oscar Short-Listed Film from Bhutan     

LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM – Oscar Short-Listed Film from Bhutan     

By Jim Gilles

Director Pawo Chooyning Dorji in Zoom interview

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/22/21 -Films from Bhutan are rarely seen in the United States and it is exciting to just learn that a film as charming as Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom has been short-listed for Best International Feature Film for the Oscars in 2022.  Pawo Choyning Dorji wrote and directed this charming drama that takes place in a remote village high in the Himalaya Mountains of Bhutan. The director had jumped to the international film business attention not long ago for producing Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait (2016) one of the movies that contributed to place Bhutan on the filmmaking and festival map. The cinema of Bhutan is a small but emerging industry, having started in the mid-1990s, when the county opened up to tourism. Much of Bhutan’s film industry is greatly influenced by neighboring India’s Bollywood with most Bhutanese films being adaptations of Indian ones or based on the Bollywood format. But more recently local Bhutanese filmmakers have started to blend Indian cinema with local Buddhist teachings and traditions. Storytelling based on Buddhist oral history and supernatural beliefs are increasingly influencing Bhutanese cinematic structure.

Yak-herder Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung) at the school

Having been in Bhutan myself three years ago, I noticed that its small capital city of Thimpu has six theaters or cinema halls. Pawo Choyhning Dorji’s previous film Hema Hema tells its story by following a mysterious ritual in the forest where all participants are masked, was praised by critics for “its portrayal of complex Buddhist themes like transgression, by juxtaposing them on to modern topics like anonymity on the Internet.” In an interview with Pawo Choyning Dorji, he revealed: “I don’t necessarily call myself a filmmaker. I’ve worked on three feature films. One as a producer, one as a director’s assistant and this one, but I rather call myself a storyteller. I write and I am also a photographer. I take lots of photos and I travel a lot. While I was traveling to the deepest corners of Bhutan, I realized that there’s so much beauty there, visually but also in terms of stories. And every time I went, I would meet inspiring beautiful people with the most amazing stories to tell. I met a schoolteacher who said that he kept a yak in his classroom because he had to collect yak dung. I met a young girl who lived all by herself on a mountain top because she wanted to be there for her mother. I met a young girl who had the most beautiful confidence, the most amazing smile, and who sang all the time. She was only eight years old and she had no mother and a drunken father.”

A yak in the classroom in Lunana where Ugen teaches

Continuing on, the loquacious Pawo added this: “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a fictional feature film, but it’s almost borderline documentary because they are all true stories that I have brought together different stories that I made it into one and that is how it came together. For example, Pem Zam, the little girl, is playing by herself, right now she’s still up there in Lunana, with no mother or fathers, she’s brought on by her grandmother, true story.” Shot on location in the actual village of Lunana, with real local children and villagers, Lunana: A Yak in The Classroom is an enchanting and touching tale about the necessity of finding a peaceful moment in life to reassess the priorities and reflect on what happiness really meant to us. It is also, for the audience, a moment of beauty and kindness from a country that rarely has the opportunity to learn about this amazing mountain kingdom in the Himalayas.

Thimphu is Bhutan’s capital city and like in many other places connectivity and access that technology and social media bring with them has crept into the dreams and desires of young people. Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) for example, cannot wait to leave behind his nagging grandmother and flee Bhutan; his dream is to emigrate to Australia and pursue a singing career. His government job as teacher doesn’t give him much satisfaction and his attitude shows all his disaffection for it. To make things worse, as he still has one year left to complete the mandatory community service, his manager decides to send him to a teaching outpost in Lunana, one of the remotest villages on the Bhutanese Himalayan mountains and the remotest school in the world. Ugyen reluctantly accepts, as he has to wait for the Visa to Australia anyway, and sets out to travel, leaving behind his grandmother and friends.

Village children in Lunana curious about the new schoolteacher

At the bus station two villagers, Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) and Singye (Tshering Dorji) are ready to pick him up to take him to Lunana and what they describe as a stroll along the river turns out to be a heavy week-long trek. But the culture shock is not finished and at the arrival Ugyen is overwhelmed by what he finds. Not only his iPod can’t be recharged as electricity is supplied by unreliable solar charged batteries, but also the school is just a bare room without any sort of equipment. Being a remote rural village, there is a yak that stays open in the classroom.

Village children in Lunana who were in the film

With the help of his class of impossibly sweet children and a village of disarmingly kind people, Ugyen will learn some unexpected things like loving and respecting yaks and their poop, singing to nature and yaks with a yak-herder girl called Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung) and that teaching children he can “touch their future” and give those kids the greatest gift – the hope for a better future. Despite some of Ugyen’s choices being quite predictable, the inner journey that he undergoes during the teaching term is steadily engaging as he is the perfect kind of relatable character that resonates with the audience and nails down the attention. Ugyen will not be the same again after his experience and he will treasure what he’s learned, whatever path he chooses to follow.

School teacher Ugen (Sherab Dorji) en route to the village of Lunana

The characters that populate the story deserve a special mention. Alongside the first-time actors, many of the villagers have contributed to the shooting, making the film a kind of hybrid between fiction and documentary, a beautiful and extraordinary project focused on human desires against the backdrop of nature. In fact, in a few scenes we see the characters from behind, facing the valley, belittled by the majesty of the mountains, a meaningful pose that suggests opening toward the earth and a dialogue with your own soul. Being also an accomplished photographer, director Choyning Dorji has an undeniable talent for capturing and framing images, aided by the sleek cinematography of Jigme Tenzing (also DOP in Hema Hema), conveying with wide angle mountain shots a tangible sense of serenity.