It took eight days for Pawo Choyning Dorji to trek up to the location of his debut film, a settlement of 56 people so high in the Himalayas that it had no communication with the world below. Everything his 35-strong crew might need for the shoot had to be hauled up by mule, with solar batteries for power because there was no electricity. The villagers he was enlisting to take part had never seen a lightbulb. “They’d never even seen sliced bread,” he says, “and had no idea how to eat it.” Nor did they have any understanding of what it might mean to appear in a film. “My only instruction to them was, ‘Tell your story to this box.’”
The result is a unique and beautiful film, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. Nominated for the best international film Oscar last year, Lunana records a way of life in Bhutan that was vanishing in real time: even as the company were packing up after the 2018 shoot, engineers were moving in to install the first 3G masts alongside the yaks grazing on the mountainside.
Bhutan protected itself from tourism by charging visitors hundreds of dollars a day, meaning it has more unclimbed mountains than anywhere else
But the absence of modern communications had not meant the community was unaffected by the outside world. The scenery is breathtaking but the glaciers are melting and the lakes are drying up. The snow lion is losing her home – and when she is gone, she will never return. This is what the villagers tell Ugyen, a wannabe musician played by Sherab Dorji who reluctantly arrives to teach their six school-age children for the few months before winter sets in.
‘She’s made people cry with joy’ … villager Pem Zam, who played a pupil, and director Pawo Choyning Dorji. Photograph: Lunana Team/AFP/Getty Images
Ugyen drills his eager recruits in reading and counting, tearing the paper windows from his shack when stocks run low in the classroom. They, in turn, teach him about contentment and about the complex musical culture of the yak herders. Being a teacher is a wonderful thing, they say, “because a teacher touches the future”. At one end of the makeshift classroom is a blackboard improvised from planks and charcoal; at the other is the community’s oldest yak, Norbu, who is too precious to be left out on the cold mountain slopes. “You can feed him according to how much dung you need,” Ugyen is told. Lunana is situated above the treeline, so dried dung is the only kindling freely available. It keeps the stoves burning and the biting winds at bay.
Dorji never envisaged a career in film. The son of a diplomat, he travelled the world with his family as a child. Later he studied international relations in the US but decided to return home and immerse himself in Buddhism. Once back, he took up photography and mountain-hiking. The upside of Bhutan, he says, is that it measures its prosperity not by GDP but by a happiness index. It has protected itself from the ravages of tourism by charging visitors hundreds of dollars a day just to be there, with the result that it has more unclimbed peaks than anywhere else in the world.
The downside is that it is so small and poor – its population was measured at 777,000 in 2021 – that many young people want to leave. This is true of both Ugyen and the actor who plays him. “The film industry is very, very small in Bhutan,” says director Dorji, speaking via Zoom from Taiwan, where he spends part of the year with his Taiwanese wife and two children. “We are lucky if we produce anything on an international level every three or four years. We have no equipment, our crews are very small and inexperienced, and finding actors is so difficult. At the end of every scene, I was left wondering, ‘Where am I going to find the actor to do these lines?’”
His solution was to write the script, then go hunting for people who might fit. Sherab Dorji, like his character Ugyen, dropped out of high school to pursue a music dream. The director came across him playing the clubs of Thimphu, the capital, while waiting for an Australian visa. Fortuitously, his girlfriend, Kelden Lhamo Gurung, is a singer who can act as well. She took a break from college to play the shy young woman who coaches Ugyen in the music of the mountains.
Many other characters appear as themselves. “So many of my friends said, ‘You don’t have to be in the most remote place in Bhutan. This is a film – people cheat.’ But I was adamant about shooting it in Lunana, because I wanted to capture the purity of the place and the people. So this movie is almost like a documentary of their lives.”
The film is also partly about language. Dorji recalls hanging around wood-burning stoves as a child, waiting for adults to start telling stories as they cooked. “Storytelling forms such an important part of our culture,” says the 39-year-old, “that there is no word for ‘story’. It cannot be expressed. For example, in English, I might say, ‘Claire, tell me a story.’ In my language, Dzongkha, I have to say, ‘Claire, please untie a knot for me.’ The whole act of telling a story has this purpose of liberating, freeing and untying.”
He’s aware that untying the knot of life in Lunana could disturb its delicate social ecology, while also presenting an unrealistically idealised picture. “Whenever I tell people I’m from Bhutan, the next question is, ‘Oh, you must be very happy?’ It’s nice, but it’s also a little unfortunate, because Bhutan is a third-world country. We have the same difficulties many third-world countries face and because of that, not everyone is happy. That’s why I made the protagonist someone who is searching for his happiness elsewhere.”
What will make him stay? … actor and musician Sherab Dorji. Photograph: CHOLING/AFP/Getty Images
Since the pandemic, the queue to leave has lengthened. “Most younger Bhutanese,” says Dorji, “seem to be looking for what they see in the western world, which is represented by the glittering lights of Sydney. I wanted to create an alternative journey for the protagonist, taking him into the most desolate place in Bhutan, and that happens to be Lunana.” The name means Dark Valley. “The question is, ‘Can we discover in the darkness what we seek in the light?’”
One standout performance is from a nine-year-old village girl, Pem Zam. In life, as in the film, she is the daughter of an alcoholic father, raised by her grandmother after her mother’s death. Since making the film, Pem Zam has travelled all around the world with it. “Touching people’s hearts,” says Dorji. “She has made people cry and burst out with joy.”
He says he was determined to save her from the usual fate of local children, which was to quit school at 11 or 12 to become yak herders. “I was in constant clashes with her father, because he wanted her to leave school. I was foreseeing that if she dropped out, she would get married at 15 or 16 and become a mother by 18, when I felt she had so much more to give.”
Pem Zam is a teenager now, with her own TikTok account on which she posts cute videos of herself dancing. She was recently accepted by one of Bhutan’s most prestigious schools. “She will continue her studies now,” says Dorji, happily. “And the funniest thing is, when we finally got confirmation of her admission, her father phoned me. He was so drunk, he couldn’t form his sentences, but he called to thank me.”
He shakes his head, marvelling that his little film has come so far. “But you know,” he adds, “in Buddhism, we talk about karma. You could say that my karma, Pem Zam’s karma and the movie’s karma have become interwoven. And it just fills my heart with joy knowing that.”
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is released in UK cinemas on 10 March
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