Lunana – Revisiting Bhutan at the Cinema

Lunana: There’s a Yak in the Classroom

The story

Ugyen Dorji is a young urban schoolteacher, aspiring to become a singer, desperate to leave Bhutan for bigger and better things in Australia. Instead, he is posted to the most remote school in Bhutan, the very antithesis of his dreams.

After an arduous eight-day trek, he arrives at a school with few books, no blackboard and minimal furniture. There is no electricity in the village.

Alone in his draughty digs with its pride of the village outside ‘bathroom’, he has no idea of how to do the most rudimentary tasks. Without tuition from the villagers, he literally can’t survive. The villagers teach him to fend for himself while treating him with respect, gratitude and good humour.

As the teacher learns, he changes. Captivated by his willing students who seem to shine despite the hardships that they endure, he begins to focus on the children’s needs. Soon his ‘predicament’ seems less of a burden. He begins to accept his new way of life and sets about making a real difference to his students.

Lunana: Yak in the Classroom  (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Making the film

The filmmaking process was a case of life imitating art; just a Ugyen faced enormous challenges due to the remoteness of his school, so too did writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji in making the film. It required careful planning, resourcefulness and physical fortitude.

The crew also trekked for eight days, with 75 mules and donkeys carrying the solar panels, batteries and food supplies. Pre-production took over twelve months and included the building of temporary housing for the crew and cast. There was only a two-month window for filming.

“We had such challenges when making the film, we were severely limited in terms of logistics. We had one old camera body, two light mats, and classroom full of kids who had never even watched a film and a semi-domestic 700 kg yak! We had nothing but the power of the sun to charge our batteries.”

Pawo Choyning Dorji

Some reviewers commented on the unsophisticated cinematography. Hardly surprising, shooting with such minimal equipment and not having enough power to review the daily shoot. It was two months before any of the footage could be reviewed and of course no option for a reshoot.

Another challenge for the director was how to work with a cast that included villagers with no concept of acting and filmmaking. Pawo Choyning Dorji worked around this by filming the local actors in situ, essentially capturing them living their lives rather than asking them to ‘act’.

Parallel universes

Both Pawo Choyning Dorji and Ugyen Dorji, are talented and resourceful people. Their experience of the world is not constrained by geography.

Ugyen Dorji takes a plane to Australia; Pawo Choyning Dorji travels to film festivals and has 21.6k followers on Instagram.

Coming to a wider audience

There was spontaneous applause when Lunana screened at the Noosa Film Society late last year – a fitting finale. This soulful story, underpinned by Buddhist philosophy, while deceptively simple gives the viewer much to reflect on.

The film which premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in 2019, was nominated for an Oscar this year. Thanks to the Oscar nomination it will be distributed more widely in 2022.

Lunana: There’s a Yak in the Classroom is a film that delights with its simple storyline, magnificent scenery, gentle humour, and life-affirming charm. Look out for this one.






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