Cover Director Pawo Choyning Dorji with child actress Pem Zam on the set of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Photo: Courtesy of Jigme Tenzing)

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is not only Bhutan’s first Oscar submission in 23 years, it also received the country’s first Academy Award nomination. First-time director Pawo Choyning Dorji tells Tatler about what it took to make the movie

Bhutan’s Oscar entry, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom almost wasn’t shot, let alone submitted for consideration at the Academy Awards. The film—produced on a shoestring budget and filmed using an old camera that ran on solar-powered batteries, with non-professional actors in one of the most remote settlements in Bhutan—nearly missed its opportunity for the big time.

The movie was first submitted for the 2021 awards but was in elidible as Bhutan didn’t have an official submission committee. On the second attempt, the movie landed the nation’s first Oscar nomination, appearing on the list for Best International Film Feature alongside entries from Japan, Denmark, Italy and Norway.

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The drama follows Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji), a teacher who dreams of moving to Australia to become a professional singer. But instead, he’s sent to teach in the village of Lunana, home to the most remote school in the world.

First-time director Pawo Choyning Dorji, who also wrote the script, tells Tatler about the film’s journey to global acclaim and why its Oscar nomination is groundbreaking for Bhutan as a whole.

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What does the nomination mean for you?

Small independent films like Lunana, that come from small countries like Bhutan, usually don’t fare well in the Oscars race. We never expected to make it even to the shortlist round, and now we find ourselves nominated. I know that for many filmmakers, an Oscar nomination is the crowning achievement of a long career, one defined by hard work and sacrifice, and yet I find myself with a nomination for my first film.

I realise how rare this is, and it inspires me to work even harder to tell the stories of Bhutan. The nomination is historic for the country. When I first submitted Lunana to the Oscars, the website didn’t even have our country or our national language listed; so seeing the Academy add Bhutan and Dzongkha to their list was already a big win for me.

Lunana has given a massive boost of inspiration to not only the Himalayan region, but to all the underdogs of cinema. When people see Lunana’s journey, it encourages them to hope and dream. It’s a testament to the idea that, if you work hard to tell a story that’s true to your heart and put everything you can into it, the impossible can become possible.

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What is the inspiration for the movie?

Over the past few decades, the idea of “happiness” has become synonymous with being Bhutanese. Everywhere I go, people seem to think Bhutan is the happiest country in the world. However, in reality, it’s quite different because thousands of people leave Bhutan every year to seek their own happiness in far-off cities like Sydney and New York. We seem to think that we can find what we seek in these modern and urban places.

I wanted to explore the question: “Is Bhutan really the happiest place in the world?” But rather than providing one answer, I put across this notion that happiness is not what we ultimately seek in life, but it’s the journey we go through to search for what we think we are seeking.

I wanted to create a story where we take the protagonist to the opposite end of the spectrum—into the most remote and most backward place, Lunana—and see if we can discover in the shadows and darkness what we so desperately seek in the light. The place name, “Lunana”, translates to “dark valley” in the local language.

Every aspect of the film was inspired by true stories, especially by pictures captured during my work as a photographer. I hoped that Ugyen’s experience in Lunana would resonate with the audience, as all of humanity is on the same journey.

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You shot the film in an incredibly remote settlement. Tell us more about some of the challenges you faced.

Film sets rely so heavily on electricity, and here we were, trying to make a film in a location where even one illuminated light bulb was a luxury. We spent a year and a half in pre-production, where we had to carry up solar batteries and solar panels and set them up. By the time we got up there to shoot the film, we hadn’t even tested the batteries so we didn’t even know if they would work.

Luckily, they did but we only had enough power to charge the essentials, such as the camera and the sound gear.

Some days we would have no sunlight so we would be shooting on our last remaining battery. We had no power to charge other equipment so I couldn’t watch any dailies [raw footage] of what we were shooting; I was only able to see the footage two months after I left Lunana.

We also had a shoestring budget, so in terms of equipment, we were also very limited. The entire film was shot on an aged 2015 Canon C300 Mark II camera, the only one we could afford. If that camera had broken, we would probably have had to cancel the production and go back to civilisation with only half a movie.

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The movie features a cast of non-professional, first-time actors. What was the experience like?

I didn’t really have a choice as there are not many professionally trained actors in Bhutan. The entire cast are making their acting debuts, and most of the villagers in Lunana were acting in a film without having ever watched a film.

I spent extended periods of time learning about their lives during pre-production and tried to adapt the script so that their own life stories were reflected, because I felt that they would be acting less, and focus more on just being themselves. For example, child actress Pem Zam’s story in the movie is real life Pem Zam’s own life story. She’s from a broken family and suffers a lot as her father is an alcoholic.

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“I hope that ‘Lunana’ can be a small message to remind us that in the end, we are more similar to each other and we all seek the same happiness”
Pawo Choyning Dorji

What was the message you wanted to convey with Lunana?

The Bhutanese spiritual traditions and culture are so uniquely Bhutanese, yet most of us rush to become a modern developed nation. We are trying so hard to strip these away as globalisation calls for all of us to be as similar as possible. I’m worried that in our rush to be a modern nation, we are losing what makes us Bhutanese. I was motivated to make this movie to highlight the beauty of Bhutanese traditions.

For example, music is the heartbeat of any culture. With Lunana, I wanted to celebrate songs such as the yak song, which is a representation of Bhutanese cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs. Within the lyrics, we find everything that Bhutan stands for: the karmic, cyclic existence of life, the belief of interdependence, the appreciation of what the Earth provides for us. Songs like this are the mountain echoes of Bhutan, yet they are being forgotten, so I wanted to try and celebrate them by creating a movie around it.

In the modern world, there’s so much focus on light, so these Bhutanese traditions could be considered backward, and “dark”. I hope the movie connects people to the darkness and makes them realise that only through the experience of the darkness can we truly appreciate the beauty of the light.

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What do hope viewers will get out of the film?

Lunana will probably be one of the most culturally diverse cinematic experiences the audience will get to have as it’s about one of the most remote cultures and societies in the world. However, I wanted to show audiences both in Bhutan and overseas that the film focuses on the universal themes of findings a home, longing for a sense of belonging and, of course, happiness.

The world has gone through so much in the last two years: the pandemic, as well as the aggression of wars, has often highlighted the differences between people and cultures. They have alienated us and built boundaries. I hope that Lunana can be a small message to remind us that in the end, we are more similar to each other and we all seek the same happiness.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on the pre-production of my second film, Once Upon a Time in Bhutan; like Lunana, it’s also about the clash of modern and traditional values in Bhutan. Lunana might have centred around one character, but this next project is about Bhutan itself, the last country in the world to allow access to the internet and television. It unfolds in the early 2000s when Bhutan decided to open itself up to the outside world after being in self-isolation for almost the better part of the last century.

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