Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, a movie from Bhutan’s remote Lunana Valley, has been nominated for an Academy Award this week. The announcement was made on 8 February and represents the first Oscar nomination for a Bhutanese film. Director, 38-year-old Pawo Choyning Dorji, expressed joy and surprise at the nomination.
Dorji reacted to the news by saying:
Today I am so very honored and proud, not as the filmmaker of an Oscar nominated film but as a Bhutanese. The nomination of ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ for Best International Feature Film is a historic first for Bhutan, 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.
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, displaying very simple and essential human values from one of the most remote places in the world, will continue to touch peoples’ hearts, especially during these difficult times.(Facebook)
Dorji grew up in rural Bhutan, not far from Lunana. The area is home to some of the world’s highest mountains, along with glaciers and lakes dotting the remote landscape. The entire valley has no electricity and is only accessible by foot. According to Dorji, the schoolchildren there, who were actors in the film, had no idea what a film even was.
“They did not even know what a camera was or what it looked like,” said Namgay Dorji, the village schoolteacher. (The New York Times)
The film is about a young schoolteacher named Ugyen who is assigned to teach in Lunana against his will. Ugyen, who is from Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, instead dreams of moving to Australia to become a singer. Nonetheless, when Ugyen travels to Lunana, he is captivated by the people there and the beauty of life in such simple surroundings.
Dorji, along with filming the movie, also wrote the script. He said he wanted to write about a teacher after reading that many of Bhutan’s teachers were quitting their jobs. Bhutan, the first and still only country to track Gross National Happiness, has struggled to maintain its traditions in the face of globalization. Dorji had noticed that many of his fellow country people looked abroad for ideals of happiness instead of working to transform lives in Bhutan.
Dorji and his crew had to carry in their equipment and relied on solar power to power daily recording sessions, which took place in 2018. The budget for the movie was comparatively small, so local villagers had to be recruited as actors and extras. One of Dorji’s strategies to incorporate them more fully was to bend the script in ways that matched their lives, allowing them to simply act as themselves.
Taiwanese Director Ang Lee, who has won Academy Awards for his work on Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Life of Pi (2012), described Lunana as a “breath of fresh air” in a conversation with Dorji in January. He told Dorji: “It’s a precious, precious, very simple but very touching movie,” adding, “Thank you for going through all that and sharing your country and culture with us.” (The New York Times)
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is the first movie that Bhutan has entered to the awards competition since the 1999 film The Cup, written and directed by Dorji’s teacher, Khyentse Norbu. The film was released digitally on 11 February on platforms across the US, including YouTube and Apple TV.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom competes with titles from Japan, Italy, Denmark, and Norway. The awards ceremony will be held on 27 March.
‘Improbable Journey’: How a Movie From Tiny Bhutan Got an Oscar Nod (The New York Times)
International Feature Film Oscar Nominations 2022 (ABC)
Pawo Choyning Dorji (Facebook)
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