The village of Lunana in Bhutan — up in the mountains, severed from the mainland by streams and stretches of montane forests — houses what is considered the world’s most remote school. It is an 8-day trek from the nearest town. Lunana literally means the dark valley; not a literal but a metaphoric darkness.
It is here that writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji sets his debut film — of a lost city youth, Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), who is sent to this village as a punishment, to teach. Ugyen, instead, wants to go to Australia to sing, and is waiting for the paperwork to arrive. Shot by Jigme Tenzing, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is as much about Ugyen as it is about Bhutan — a country and a character struggling with the promise of modernization. When we first see Ugyen he is wearing a shirt that reads “Gross National Happiness”, alluding to the popular conception of Bhutan as the happiest nation. But the expressions on his face show anything but. There is a wretchedness that he cannot shake off.
Born in Darjeeling, Pawo grew up in Tamil Nadu, and is now living between Himachal Pradesh, Bhutan, and Taiwan. He discusses the arduous journey of making the film without electricity, up in the mountains, and the surprising turn of events when the film was nominated for the 94th Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.
Edited for length and clarity.
What was the central idea driving the film?
I wanted to make a film that reflected what Bhutan is going through. Whenever I go and tell someone I am from Bhutan, I can almost guarantee that the next question will be, “Oh so you must be a happy person.” But like any other country Bhutan is facing a lot of challenges — from an isolated country to being the last country to open up to the internet, to television — which I highlighted through this film. Before we opened up, it was almost like ignorance is bliss.
After we opened up, we faced a lot of challenges — huge rural to urban migration, thousands of young Bhutanese leaving the country every year, seeking their own happiness elsewhere, teachers quitting their jobs, etc. With this movie I wanted to touch upon the beauty of our culture.
“When I submitted Lunana, Bhutan wasn’t even an option on the Academy website. There was no mention of our national language — Dzongkha — in the language drop-down list.”
Was there a worry you were going to romanticize this lifestyle?
Definitely. Some people were telling me you were glorifying the life of the poor people. But in a way, I was really trying to celebrate the traditions and culture.
You did add the alcoholic father of Pem Zam, the studious girl playing herself, to suggest that all is not well in Lunana.
Yes! Actually, Pem Zam’s real father is an alcoholic. I just showed what was there. I just told Pem Zam to be herself. The funny thing was when we were shooting the scene of Pem Zam and her father — I had placed an actor as a drunk man — the crew members were worried her real father might find out and come fight me. So we shot quietly when the real father was drunk, passed out elsewhere.
How does a Bhutanese movie make it to the Oscars?
See, because of the challenges we faced, I wondered if we would even finish this movie. Once it was completed, I never thought it would travel to so many festivals, forget the Oscars. The aim was to share a film with Bhutanese, to tell the story of what Bhutanese people are going through in this day and age. I had absolutely no expectations.
I was just glad to see Bhutan, for the first time in 23 years, on the list. When the shortlist was announced, I wasn’t even aware of it till my friends congratulated me. Later, I was so shocked when they announced the film was nominated. I thought that they made a mistake — like when they gave the award to La La Land instead of Moonlight — and so I just waited it out, to see if they would announce that they made a mistake. It took a while to sink in.
What about the Oscar lobbying process? Did you go to LA, organize screenings, receptions?
No, no, nothing. There was no campaign. When we submitted the film, some distributors said you have no chance if you don’t have a North American distributor and a publicity team pushing you out. But I told them that I wasn’t submitting Lunana to be shortlisted, but to give Bhutan a place, some relevance on the world stage. It has been 23 years since Bhutan submitted a film.
When I submitted Lunana, Bhutan wasn’t even an option on the Academy website. There was no mention of our national language — Dzongkha — in the language drop-down list.
How did you submit the film, then, if the option wasn’t available?
The whole submission was a long process. The submission application is page by page, so only if you finish page one, you can move on to page two. On page one, the second question they asked, after the movie title, was country of origin. It’s a drop-down menu. There was no Bhutan. So I had to write to them, saying my country was not represented. This was on a Friday and the applications closed on Monday. They said don’t worry, they were going to update the website. But that would only be done on Monday.
So on Monday I go to the website, fill in Bhutan, and go to page two, and in the options for languages, there is no Dzongkha. So, I had to write to them again, asking them to update the website. It was such a challenging, long process and without a distributor or PR or lobbying, I really had no hope. I was just happy I was able to carve out a place for Bhutan in the Academy so future Bhutanese film makers can build upon that.
How would you describe where Bhutanese cinema is today in terms of infrastructure, audience, and artists? Are they all moving out and making movies in other countries, like the musician in Lunana?
Bhutanese films started 30 years ago. There is a commercial local industry and independent art films, to which I belong. The commercial industry is thriving. One director can make 7-8 small budget films a year. They shoot for a few days and are done. This is very inspired by Bollywood — lots of music, love stories, Romeo-Juliet. Some of these films are quite popular in Arunachal Pradesh, I hear.
Our independent film industry is very small. In 1999 my guruji Khyentse Norbu made The Cup, which was Bhutan’s first Oscar entry. When he made that film, it was the turning point for many aspiring films in Bhutan. His films went to Cannes and Venice. We saw these movies and thought, we could aspire to be that, too. I am hoping that Lunana’s success will similarly inspire Bhutanese filmmakers.
“My cinematographer used to always say, in filmmaking the most challenging thing to do is to work with children and animals, and that I had chosen both on my very first film.”
The production was entirely dependent on solar charged batteries given how remote Lunana is. This sounds like a unique challenge, apart from this being your first film and your crew consisting entirely of untrained actors.
In Bhutan, we don’t have professional actors. Even our actors don’t have proper film school or theater training. All of the actors in Lunana are acting for the first time. Three of them are from the city so they have seen television and movies. But everyone else is from the Lunana village, itself. They have never even experienced light bulbs, forget cinema. It was thus a clean slate, purer, and easier to work with.
Production wise, I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish the film. Filmmakers are so dependent on electricity, so when I proposed the idea of solar energy, many people said it was impossible. We were in pre-production for almost a year and a half. We had to build everything up there — an army of mules carrying our equipment, solar batteries, solar panels. Our electrician had to install and test everything. It took a long time. When I went up, I told my crew members that there is a possibility we might not be able to shoot the film. We don’t have the luxury of going up, testing, and going back again.
We just had enough energy to power the camera, sound equipment, and laptop to dump the footage. I had no luxury of watching dailies. It was like shooting in the dark, shooting in film. I had to make sure we had everything since we couldn’t go back to shoot. I had a small director’s monitor, and even that… halfway through the shoot, my assistant tumbled down the mountain and my monitor ended up in the river. (laughs)
How long did it take to shoot the film?
Three months. Two months in Lunana, with the first few weeks in Thimphu and Paro, the urban places.
Finally, how was it shooting with a yak? That couldn’t have been easy.
My cinematographer used to always say, in filmmaking the most challenging thing to do is to work with children and animals, and that I had chosen both on my very first film. That too children who had never seen movies, and an animal as big as a yak. When I told the locals I wanted a yak in the classroom, they thought it was impossible.
We had a yak audition — hundreds of yaks, and we found Naka. He was so gentle because he was so old. He had saved people from altitude sickness, carrying them to lower altitudes. He was initially very nervous and would move around and the whole classroom would start shaking. But then we realized he loved eating barley flour. So before every scene we would sprinkle barley flour and salt on the floor. He would lick it and stay still. Once we finished the shoot, he sadly passed away from old age. But we are happy he lives on in our film.