Why It Took Bhutan 21 Years to Send a Film to the Oscars

Filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji shot the film at a remote location with equipment run on solar batteries.
Bhutan, Oscars, Film, Yak

A still from the film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.

It was only in 1989 that the first Bhutanese feature film hit theatres. The first official entry to the Oscars was in 1999. Now, 21 years later, a second film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, released in February this year, is the official entry for the 93rd Academy Awards. The film was shot in one of the remotest schools in the world in Lunana village, 16000 feet above the sea level. The Oscar nominations will be announced by February 2021 and the award ceremony will be held on April 25 in Los Angeles.

VICE News spoke to Pawo Choyning Dorji, director and writer of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. Dorji, 36, shot the film in three months on a shoestring budget of USD 300,000.

The film follows the journey of a teacher sent to Lunana on a punishment posting while he yearns for an escape to Australia. The teacher wants to leave as soon as he arrives in this glacial village but the local children make a plan to win him over.

The film has travelled to BFI London Film Festival, Busan International Film Festival and Palm Springs International Film Festival.

VICE: Why did it take Bhutan 21 years to send a film for Oscars?
Pawo Choyning Dorji: Numerous commercial films, along with a handful of independent art films are produced every year in Bhutan. Though the commercial films (mostly inspired by Bollywood) do well locally, they don’t usually venture beyond Bhutan. The art films that do well at international film festivals are not usually screened domestically for various reasons. This makes them ineligible to be an official submission at the Oscars.
With Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, I wanted to make a film that was of international standard but also had a local appeal. I think we achieved that with this film. Some people took an 18 hour bus journey to reach Thimphu just to watch the film. We had to put plastic chairs in between the aisles of the cinema hall to accommodate everyone.
The film’s domestic success was a big reason that the Bhutanese government submitted it to the Academy Awards.

What challenges did  you face while shooting at a remote location like Luana?
When I first floated the idea of shooting in Lunana to fellow filmmakers, I was met with a lot of scepticism.
The pre-production of the movie took over a year as we had to carry up our solar batteries and rations for the crew with a caravan of over 75 mules. We were never sure if our solar batteries would have enough power to charge all our equipment. There was just enough power to charge our camera and sound gear. I did not have the luxury of watching dailies of what we shot during the day. I could watch that in the editing room, five months after we had wrapped production.

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Filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji with child actor Pem Zam during the shoot of the film at Lunana village, in Bhutan. Photo by Jigme Thinley.

How was it like living in Luana?
We stayed there for over 60 days. It was a daunting task. We were living with locals, had no electricity and phone network. Basic facilities like a bed, hot bath and proper toilets were a luxury. I took only one shower in over two months. Some crew members suffered from acute altitude sickness and had to leave before shooting could officially wrap.

Is there a message that you want to give through this film?
The protagonist represents the youth of modern Bhutan. He’s caught in a traditional world but trying hard to be modern. He, like most Bhutanese youth, looks beyond the snow capped mountains that separate Bhutan from the rest of the world with great curiosity.
Ironically, many Bhutanese leave Bhutan, the so-called land of happiness seeking their own version of happiness in the glittering cities of the west.
Through the film, I wanted to play out this juxtaposition of modern and traditional values, blended in with the subject of gross national happiness, a term that has become synonymous with Bhutan.

Why did you opt to work with amateur actors?
There aren’t many trained actors in Bhutan.
To ensure natural performances, we opted for non actors. One of the main characters is Pem Zam, a nine-year-old girl, who has never experienced electricity and never watched a movie. She lives with her alcoholic father and old grandmother. After casting Pem Zam, I rewrote the script so that the film’s character mirrors her real life.

What was your inspiration for this story?
I had heard stories of teachers posted in remote schools of Bhutan and their hardships and sacrifices. One of my teachers, Dechen Tshering, told me how to light a fire. He used to collect yak dung as there were hardly any trees for wood. He got a yak into the classroom so that he no longer had to travel to highlands. He used charcoal to write on walls of the classroom. His story fascinated me. Two documentaries about schools in Bhutan – Price of Knowledge by Ugyen Wangdi and School Amongst Glaciers by Dorji Wangchuk – also inspired me.

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Smitha Verma
Via Vice News

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