Bhutan’s ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ Had an Arduous, Unexpected Journey to the Oscars

BY PATRICK BRZESKI at The Hollywood Reporter

If an Oscar category existed for biggest production challenges, the Bhutanese drama Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom would probably be this year’s frontrunner.

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji, 38, the feature was shot in a remote Himalayan village accessible only by an eight-day trek on foot, some 3 miles above sea level. Home to just several dozen residents practicing traditional subsistence living amid brutal high-mountain conditions, the village is a place of such scarcity that the director and his crew had to carry in by mule and backpack all of their own food and supplies for the three-month shoot, building their own temporary housing by hand upon arrival.

Portable solar panels provided just enough electricity to charge the single digital camera Dorji used to shoot the entire film but not enough for him to watch any of the daily footage he was capturing. Instead, he was forced to simply hope and trust that he had gotten the coverage he needed. The cast, meanwhile, was composed entirely of nonprofessional, first-time actors — mainly local villagers who had never even seen a movie before, let alone acted in one. On top of it all, the entire film would be made for just $300,000 — less than the craft services budget of many major Hollywood films.

Nonetheless, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is now an Oscar contender, nominated in the best international film category — the first nomination for Bhutan.

“It’s very humbling to think of how we started and where we find ourselves now,” says Dorji. “But I think that is the magical possibility of film and why all of us are involved in this craft in our own different ways.”

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom tells the story of Ugyen, an uninspired young teacher from Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, who dreams of moving to Australia to become a singer. But before he can arrange his emigration, a government administrator assigns him to teach for a year in the village of Lunana (described to him as “the most remote school in the world”), thinking it will give Ugyen some direction. Ugyen (appealingly inhabited by first-time actor Sherab Dorji) initially begrudges the assignment and longs to get back to his cosmopolitan city life, but gradually the pace of Lunana, the decency of the people and their traditional ways, soak into him. Soon, he’s taking the trust and esteem the villagers have placed in him to educate their children much more seriously.

In one of the film’s most touching developments, he turns his musical talent to learning the region’s complicated but beautiful traditional folk music. And as the film’s title promises, Ugyen’s duties also eventually entail the care of one of the village’s sacred yaks, which comes to reside in his classroom.

“The story of Ugyen is actually my own story in many ways,” says director Dorji. The son of a Bhutanese diplomat, the helmer grew up all over the world, going to school in India, Switzerland and the Middle East, and later studying political science and international relations at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. “Growing up outside Bhutan, when I would come home, I almost saw myself as somehow being on a higher plane than ordinary people here. ‘I’m educated, I’m modern, I’m Westernized,’ I would tell myself.”

But after completing his degree in the U.S., the director returned home and embarked on a period of traveling through remote regions of his homeland — and it was there that the germ of the idea for his debut film came to him. “I trekked for days into the mountains and lived with highlanders for months,” he explains. “And as I did that, I realized that there was so much that I didn’t know about my culture and so much I could appreciate about our traditions. Basically, Ugyen’s journey of reconnecting with his culture throughout the movie is exactly what I went through.”

Bhutan famously orients its national policy around the pursuit of “gross domestic happiness,” but Dorji says his film was inspired by a growing awareness that for much of the country’s youth today, “happiness lies elsewhere.”

Being a teacher was once seen as both a solid government job and an esteemed occupation in Bhutan, but Dorji says he chose to make Ugyen a restless young educator after reading an article about scores of young Bhutanese teachers resigning from their jobs in recent years. “Thousands and thousands of our young people are leaving the country because they want to look for happiness in the modern, urban West,” he explains.

Lunana‘s against-the-odds Oscar nomination has sparked a wave of curiosity about the film in Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu — a place where imported Bollywood filmmaking typically dominates — and, to an extent, it has achieved Dorji’s mission of inspiring a renewed sense of pride in Bhutanese tradition.

“One of the things I wanted to do was bring back appreciation of the traditional folk songs of Bhutan,” he explains. “These songs in the film really tell the story of our country and they are at the heart and soul of Bhutanese culture, but as we are modernizing, they are being forgotten. I wanted to showcase these songs in the movie partly to show Bhutan to the outside world but also to remind Bhutanese about this amazing music we have.” Since its release, singing and recording the “yak song” featured at the film’s center has become a trend among local youth on social media. “I’m so happy to see that,” Dorji says.

The filmmaker also has far exceeded his ambition of using Lunana as a modest vehicle for sharing Bhutanese culture with the world. Earlier in awards season, the U.S. publicists representing the film’s Oscars campaign arranged for the director to conduct a video conversation with Ang Lee about the making of the film, which was later shared on YouTube. The two-time Oscar winner was effusive in his phrase of the first-time directorial effort, describing Lunana as a “breath of fresh air” and a “very simple but very touching movie.”

Lee added: “Thank you for going through all that and sharing your country and culture with us.”

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