Review by Chiara Gregor
Writer and director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s debut feature-film Lunana – a Yak in the Classroom (2019) was submitted to the Oscars for Best International Feature not once but twice; so it must have surprised both the Bhutanese as well as the international audiences when it was included in the nominations the second time around in 2022.
Being only the second film ever to be submitted to the Academy from Bhutan, the film is set in the real village of Lunana, a remote community of yak herders in the Himalayan mountain-scape. The plot of the film is fairly simple, almost cliché: the protagonist Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is a schoolteacher from the city in his last year of his mandatory service as a government employee. He is unmotivated in his field and dreams of pursuing a music career in Australia. When he finds out that he is being relocated to teach young children in Lunana, a town so remote that it takes several days of hiking to get there, Ugyen is less than happy. He reluctantly agrees to embark on the journey, accompanied by Michen(Ugyen Norbu Lhendup), a kind-hearted young man from Lunana, who rainboots and sings traditional songs in the country’s official Dzongkha language by the campfire. Having arrived in the village, Ugyen is welcomed warmly but immediately wants to turn back. The enthusiasm of the village children (“Teachers touch the future!”) and the music of the mountains encourage Ugyen to stay and take his job more seriously.
Within the span of two hours, Dorji’s directorial debut manages to avoid character developments, conflict, or obstacles to present a solely positivistic proclamation of the power of music, education, spirituality, and community. While the film was condemned by some for taking the spot of a more nuanced project in the Oscar nominations, Lunana is definitely worth a watch – if not for Bhutan’s beautiful landscape, then for the film’s unique circumstance of its production. Not only did the director and his team have to transport their filming equipment on mules, but the cast of the film also largely consists of the real inhabitants of Lunana and the remote settlements on the way. In this way, the film adds a layer of reality and authenticity which shines through the sometimes disjointed and stilted script.