And the Oscar may go to… Bhutan, says Anupama Chopra

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An Oscar-nominated film with a Yak in a starring role: Who could have imagined those words in the same sentence? Pawo Choyning Dorji’s gorgeous, tender and wise feature debut, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom has proved once again the essential truth of Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman’s classic showbiz dictum: Nobody knows anything.

Lunana is a remote village in Bhutan. It’s an eight-day trek to the nearest town. Bhutan’s and perhaps the world’s most isolated school is here. Lunana is the story of Ugyen (played by Sherab Dorji), a young man from Thimphu who is sent to the village to teach at that school.

Ugyen’s dream is to migrate to Australia and become a singer. He’s frustrated with his new circumstances, which include an outdoor toilet that is essentially a shack with a hole in the ground, buzzing with flies. The school doesn’t have a blackboard, or paper. It’s bitterly cold. And his iPod — Ugyen’s music enables him to shut out the world with large headphones — won’t charge in the village’s solar-powered port.

Slowly, the people of Lunana compel Ugyen to reconsider his view of the world. The teacher becomes a student.

Pem Zam (left) as the smartest student in what may be the world’s most isolated school.
Pem Zam (left) as the smartest student in what may be the world’s most isolated school.

The film is a moving portrait of Pawo’s country and its people. Both are in transition. Bhutan was the world’s last nation to open up to television and the internet, in 1999. Pawo, who also wrote the script, prods us to think about technology (at the start, Ugyen is frantically texting on his phone, ignoring the person who has come a long way to take him to Lunana), the way we treat each other (Ugyen is bewildered by the respect the villagers accord him), and our relationships with nature (the yak, whose dung helps to light fires, is treated as a member of the family by villagers).

The landscape is startlingly beautiful, but the film doesn’t lose sight of the harsh living conditions and limited opportunities; when Ugyen writes “C for Car” on the blackboard, the students don’t understand because they’ve never seen one. The smartest student is a sparkling little girl named Pem Zam whose father is an alcoholic. What opportunities will she get to fulfil her potential?

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is the first Bhutanese film to be nominated for an Oscar. The fact that it made it through the application process is a minor miracle. When Pawo tried to fill out the online submission form, it listed neither Bhutan (this is the country’s first submission in 23 years) nor its official language, Dzongkha. The Academy had to update its form to include both before Pawo could apply.

And now this poignant film with a largely non-professional cast, shot in a tiny village without electricity (the equipment, including solar panels used to power the shoots, had to be transported up mountainsides by mules), is up for one of the world’s most prestigious film awards. It’s the stuff of fairy tales. As a great lover of Bhutan and the movies, I’m thrilled. May there be many more!

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