How Bhutan’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom earned an Oscar nomination

The director nearly missed the Academy’s application deadline when its website did not accept Dzongkha-language films.

Every year, an international film without top distributor support or aggressive marketing receives an Oscar nomination. Last year, it was the Tunisian work of “The Man Who Sells His Leather”; Samuel Goldwyn Films acquired it after it was shortlisted for the Oscars; This time, Samuel Goldwyn bought “Lunana: A Yak in the classroom“Before being nominated. It marks the first Oscar nomination for the small, long-isolated Buddhist country of Bhutan, which became the last country in the world to open its doors to television and the internet in 1999.

The film made its way around the festival after its 2019 premiere at the London Film Festival, winning awards and slowly building a profile. Bhutan is so proud of Pawo Choyning Dorji’s debut film that the country has sent the film twice. Initially, the Academy rejected it because the country had no official selection committee nor Oscar track record: Bhutan hadn’t submitted a film in 23 years.

When photographer and director Dorji tried to fill out the submission form, he told me on Zoom, it doesn’t list Bhutanese nor its official language, Dzongkha. The Academy had to update the website before the stressed filmmaker (barely) met the deadline.

The logistics of filming the film at the most remote school in the world, located in the Himalayas without electricity or a network connection, were daunting. Dorji struggled for years to determine if the movie he had in mind was possible.

“I kept pushing myself further and further away from civilization,” he said. “I’ve been hiking, I’ve tracked the eastern valleys of Bhutan, deep into the Himalayas, for three, four days.” (Many encounters, such as the cowherd without shoes, were included in the film.) Dorji saw the reach of globalization and modernization, no matter how remote. In 2018, after three years of searching, the filmmaker decided: “I will have to go to Lunana. There’s no way I could have done this anywhere else,” he said.

LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM, 2019. © Samuel Goldwyn Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom”

© Samuel Goldwyn Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

After a year and a half of pre-production, with around $200,000 in support from Huanxi Media Group, Dorji outfitted 65 mules with solar panels, batteries, headlights, cameras and audio equipment for the trip. set of eight days up the mountain. Accompanying the tour was his movie star, rookie musician and actor Sherab Dorji, whom he spotted in a bar. He plays a reluctant teacher from the city who is assigned to a remote station and is miserable without a cell phone. His ambition is to make a name for himself as a musician in Australia.

In the mountains, a good yak farmer not only teaches him a traditional Bhutanese folk song about the cycle of life, but also helps him by lending him a yak to live with him. and provide him with manure, much needed heat in the cold one-room school.

Dorji and his cameraman cousin Jigme Tenzing didn’t know if the technology would work. Both were mentored by Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu, who gave them advice during the editing process. Dorji prepared the crew for the possibility that they wouldn’t be able to shoot the film in these extreme conditions.

They made it work by taking advantage of the beautiful setting, recruiting local villagers to play their own versions. They put cameras in the classroom and let the kids fly. When the children brushed their teeth for the first time, the camera recorded their reactions.

“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom”

Samuel Goldwyn Films

When it’s time to say goodbye, the feelings of the villagers and students are real. “I wanted to document the purity of these places,” Dorji said. “Everyone is looking for what they are looking for in urban, modern, in the twinkling lights of Western cities. So I wanted to create a story where I take the protagonist to the opposite end of the spectrum, the most desolate, remotest place in Bhutan and possibly the world. I wanted myself and the crew and cast to go through this experience. Because I feel like if the filmmakers experienced it for themselves, living with the locals – the hardships, the emotions, the love – like the filmmakers go through, it would translate into a movie. . It is not man-made; the movie comes to life. ”

It wasn’t until the filmmakers returned to the city that they were able to see what they captured. In the end, the film’s beautiful setting and charming cast of amateurs proved a winning combination. (There are also cell towers in Lunana.)

Up next: Taiwan-based Dorji has networked around the world, from French and Swiss investors to Hollywood, as he tirelessly promotes the film. He is currently working on “Once Upon a Time in Bhutan,” a culture clash story about an NRA gun collector who travels to Bhutan in search of an antique rifle in the hands of a reclusive monk. Delayed by the pandemic, Dorji hopes to get it this summer.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” in limited release on January 21, 2022.

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Olly Dawes

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