‘Lunana’, a film from Bhutan, is nominated for an Oscar

THIMPHU, Bhutan – As a crew of 35 prepared to make a film in Bhutan’s remote Lunana Valley, they faced a host of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The valley had no electricity. It could only be reached by walking eight days from the nearest village. And the schoolchildren who were to star in the film knew nothing about theater or cinema.

“They didn’t even know what a camera was or what it looked like,” Namgay Dorji, the village schoolteacher, said in a phone interview.

On Tuesday, the film “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” was nominated for an Oscar – a first in Bhutan. Its director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, said he’s been on an “unlikely journey” since deciding to shoot the film, his first, in a Himalayan village about three miles above sea level.

“It was so unlikely that I thought I couldn’t finish,” said Mr Dorji, 38, from a rural part of Bhutan east of Lunana.

“Somehow we now find ourselves nominated for an Oscar,” he added. “When I found out, it was so amazing that I kept saying to my friends, ‘What if I woke up tomorrow and realized it was all just a dream?'”

“Lunana,” which was released digitally on Friday, tells the story of a young teacher in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, who is assigned to work at a remote mountain school against his will. He dreams of quitting his government job, emigrating to Australia and pursuing a career as a singer.

But the teacher, Ugyen, is fascinated by the people he meets at Lunana – especially 9-year-old Pem Zam, a radiant student with a difficult family life. As the months pass, he begins to take his job more seriously.

Mr Dorji, who wrote the screenplay, said he cast a teacher as the protagonist after reading reports about Bhutanese educators quitting their jobs. He saw it as a symbol of discontent in a poor and isolated country where globalization has brought about profound social changes.

Bhutan prides itself on measuring and maximizing the “Gross National Happiness” of its approximately 750,000 people. But Mr Dorji said young Bhutanese increasingly believe that real happiness is found abroad, in places like Australia, Europe or New York.

He said he chose Lunana Valley as the film’s setting because it presented a dramatic contrast to a “well-lit” foreign town. The region is isolated even by the standards of this remote Himalayan kingdom; in Dzongkha, the national language, lunana means “dark valley”.

“My idea was: Can we discover in shadow and darkness what we so desperately seek in light?” Mr Dorji, who splits his time between Bhutan, India and Taiwan, said in an interview from Taipei, Taiwan.

Turning his vision into a film was a gigantic undertaking. Lunana Valley borders the far west of China, has glacial lakes and some of the highest peaks in the world, and is not accessible by car. When health workers there administered coronavirus vaccines last year, they had to fly in helicopters and walk from village to village through snow and ice.

When Mr. Dorji’s film crew traveled to Lunana in late summer 2018, they transported their firewood, batteries, solar chargers and other essential gear on mules. They brought non-perishable rations, like dried pumpkin and mushrooms, because there was no refrigeration. And when they arrived, they had to build their own temporary accommodation.

There was just enough solar power to shoot the film with one camera, but not enough for Mr. Dorji to review his footage each night after filming, as most directors do. So he had to follow his instincts and hope for the best.

His casting presented another challenge. The three main roles were played by non-professional actors from Thimphu. The others were all from Lunana – a place where families survive on subsistence farming and harvesting a valuable alpine mushroom – and had never even seen a movie.

“The camera in front of them could have been a yak, for whatever they wanted,” Mr Dorji said.

Mr. Dorji said he adapted to his characters’ lack of experience by adapting the script to their lives, essentially encouraging them to play themselves. Pem Zam, for example, bears his real name in the film.

Mr. Dorji also shot scenes in the order they appear in the film, so his actors could let their characters evolve with the story. He also added scenes he considered poignant examples of real village life. An example: in a scene where Ugyen teaches his students how to use a toothbrush, they are not playing; they really didn’t know.

The result is a film that successfully captures a sense of innocence, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee told Mr Dorji in a video call last month. He described “Lunana” as a “breath of fresh air”.

“It’s a precious, precious, very simple but very touching film,” Mr. Lee said. “Thank you for going through all of this and for sharing your country and your culture with us.”

“Lunana” is Bhutan’s first Oscar entry since “The Cup,” a 1999 film written and directed by Mr Dorji’s teacher, Khyentse Norbu. This film, which relates the arrival of television in a monastery, was not preselected nor nominated for an Oscar.

The Bhutanese government submitted ‘Lunana’ for last year’s Oscars, but it was disqualified: the national film committee had gone so long without submitting a film for consideration that it was no longer officially recognized by the Academy.

For the 2022 awards, the country has formed a special selection committee. And in December, “Lunana” was among the 15 shortlisted out of 93 Oscar nominations from around the world. On Tuesday it was one of five films – alongside others from Japan, Denmark, Italy and Norway – nominated for an Oscar in the International Feature Film category.

Karma Phuntsho, chairman of the selection committee, said “Lunana” reflects the maturation of a national film industry that is only about three decades old.

“I encouraged my friends in the film industry to look beyond the small Bhutanese market and share our stories with the world,” he said. “Pawo did it brilliantly and it’s a proud moment for all Bhutanese and friends of Bhutan.”

Mr Dorji said the film was made on a budget of $300,000 – “peanuts in filmmaking” – and he didn’t expect to get much help publicizing it. It is now distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and marketed by a public relations agency with offices in New York and Beverly Hills.

News of the film’s success came back to Lunana, according to Kaka, a 51-year-old village chief who goes by the name. “People back home are happy that their village is known to the world,” he said by phone.

Namgay Dorji, 35, the real-life teacher whose experience of living in Lunana Valley for a decade inspired parts of the script, said the film’s international success inspired him to stay in the region longer than he had expected.

“When I was in front of the camera, I wasn’t very excited,” said Mr. Dorji, the schoolteacher, who appeared in the film as an extra. “But after watching it and listening to the children’s dialogue, I realized how many difficulties our community had to overcome.”

Chencho Dema reported from Thimphu, Bhutan, and Mike Ives from Seoul.

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