When his directorial debut, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Samuel Goldwyn Films), earned an Academy Award nomination earlier this month for Best International Feature, Pawo Choyning Dorji didn’t dwell on himself. Rather his immediate reaction sprung from his voice as “a Bhutanese.” To have this film--which he also wrote--get the first ever Oscar nod for Bhutan meant everything to Dorji. He described Bhutan as “a small but very special country with so much wisdom and compassion to share with the rest of the world. I am so grateful to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and all the members of the Academy for giving us this opportunity and platform to share ourselves with the world."
He went on to share during that nominations announcement day, "The improbable journey of this little film from the glaciers of the Himalayas to the Oscars is a celebration of all the possibilities in art and creativity. We hope our film will continue to touch people’s hearts as we continue to seek for the essential human values in life, especially during these difficult times.”
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom introduces us to a young teacher--named Ugyen--who comes from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, where his efforts are half-hearted. He is unmotivated and disillusioned, clearly preoccupied with pursuing a singing career in Australia. His responsibilities as a teacher seem secondary at best. And his interest figures to wane further when he is assigned by the federal government to work at a remote mountain school against his will. Ugyen sees himself as almost being exiled to Lunana in northern Bhutan--an eight-day walk from the nearest drop off point. The sparsely populated village has no electricity, no textbooks, not even a blackboard. As soon as Ugyen arrives there, he lets it be known that he wants to return home as soon as possible. But as he connects with the kids in the makeshift classroom--which is inhabited by a yak--Ugyen begins to transform. The spiritual strength of the villagers, the beautiful children--particularly a nine-year-old girl who remains sweet and upbeat despite having come from a broken home--help to make Ugyen a true teacher appreciative of the simple, subtle pleasures that he wasn’t in tune with previously. As the teacher gets educated, he becomes a better teacher and person, a positive role model for the youngsters and others in Lunana.
Similarly writer-director Dorji found himself getting an education from the experience of making the film and telling its story--as well as benefiting from a reaffirmation about what is truly important. And that in turn put the Oscar nomination in context for him personally. He told SHOOT, “I dare not call myself a filmmaker because I have too much respect for filmmaking. I never went to film school, never studied professionally. The little I know I picked up working as an assistant...I told my crew this is my first film. I’m still learning, be patient with me. I still see myself as a student. Being recognized by the Academy as a nominee is almost a pinnacle in a career, based on hard work and perfecting your craft. I am so blessed to be recognized for my first work (as a director)--it’s very humbling and very inspiring. It’s inspiring me to work even harder after this--and for my country.
Dorji was prompted in part to make the film because a huge number of people are leaving Bhutan, which is known for being the “happy country.” But, he observed, “so many were looking elsewhere for happiness, going from rural to urban, teachers quitting their jobs.” Young aspiring people saw greener pastures in Europe, Australia and America. They sought modernization and urbanization. And to contrast that, Dorji found himself wanting to tell a story that reflected the complete opposite--and that would be Lunana. “I wanted to capture the purity of the place,” explained Dorji who recalled “when I first told my friends that I wanted to make a film in Lunana, it was to them like I wanted to make a film on the moon. It’s desolate. Prior to our going there, there weren’t even images of Lunana on Google,”
His cast consisted of non-professional actors from Thimphu who portrayed the three main roles including that of Ugyen. The other performers were all from Lunana. They had never seen a movie, much less a camera. Without electricity, Dorji had to rely on solar power to keep a single camera running. There wasn’t enough power for him to review at the end of the day what had been shot, meaning that he had to trust his instincts that he got the scenes and coverage he needed.
Dorji found, though, that the limited resources only served to make him and his colleagues more meticulous in their plans. “It made us better filmmakers.”
There was also preparation well before filming ever began--over the course of a year and a half or so, including the installation of solar panels in the village. Mules had to be relied on in order to get equipment into Lunana, deep in the Himalayan glaciers. Cars and conventional transportation could not access the village due to rugged, steep, winding terrain.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was made on a shoestring budget of around $300,000--about what other Oscar contenders, quipped Dorji, spend during a week for their awards campaigns. But cast and crew bonded to make the most of their resources.
As for his biggest takeaway from Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, Dorji related, “All storytellers have this one story that they really wish to tell but many times they question themselves whether it can be done or should be done.” During the course of mulling things over, he noted, you listen to others’ opinions--some of which are not too encouraging. But making this film and the journey it entailed have been remarkable. “From a small film that nobody believed in even after it was made to somehow now being an Oscar nominee shows that anything is possible. Small filmmakers should believe with all their hearts in the story that they wish to tell.”
Even after the film was finished, gaining exposure was a struggle. No agent or publicist had been secured. The efforts to find an audience were pretty much confined to Dorji sending it out to film festivals from which he received numerous rejections. “It’s been an amazing journey and shows that anything is possible,” he stressed. “People shouldn’t give up on their dreams.”
This is the 13th installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood and will be televised live on ABC at 8 pm ET/5 pm PT and in more than 200 territories worldwide.