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Little girls and boys and a yak - what Bhutan's first Oscar nominated film has to say

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

The film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom narrates the relationship between people and yaks, especially children and yaks, and makes hauntingly beautiful statements about our relationship with the natural and animal world.

A scene from the filming of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.

In a breakthrough moment of achievement for the budding Bhutanese film industry, the film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, has become the first Bhutanese movie to be nominated to the Academy Awards. Pawo Choyning Dorji’s film carved a historic moment by being nominated under the category of Best International Feature at the Oscars. The film gives a slice of Bhutanese culture by tracing the life of nomadic yak herders in the village of Lunana through the journey of a young Bhutanese teacher named Ugyen Dorji.

Initially reluctant to go back to the capital city of Thimphu, Ugyen Dorji’s journey eventually turns into a long van ride through Lunana, the village of 50 people with no electricity. The movie attempts to vividly capture the essence of the native Bhutanese life and especially the relationship shared by the people of Lunana with their yaks. The subject matter of this film makes its international recognition all the more significant. This is because the cultural landscape of Bhutan is now being internationally acknowledged and cheered through this piece of delicate and beautiful art.

Why does it matter?

The recognition obtained through the Academy Award nominations is very significant for a country like Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom of around 800,000 people, as it attempts to churn out a place in the world of art and cinema. This is important not only for the country’s political standing but also for Bhutan to make a name in a world primarily dominated by mainstream art. For the people and artists of Bhutan, this Oscar nomination leads to a space that provides them international attention and a platform to express themselves with a unique voice. It is important because Bhutan has always been sandwiched between two politically, culturally, and artistically between two giants, India and China. Its film industry which produces around 30 movies a year has traditionally been heavily influenced by Indian cinema. But increasingly Bhutanese filmmakers are turning to indigenous aspects of their own culture and way of life - with its unique focus on Gross National Happiness rather than merely GDP (Gross Domestic Product) - to depict on screen.

According to the director and producer of the film Pawo Choyning Dorji, when the movie was first submitted to the Oscars, the Academy did not even have Bhutan or Dzongkha in its list of recognized countries or languages. To go from not being recognised officially to being nominated in the category of Best International Feature is quite a leap for the Bhutanese film industry. To put this achievement into perspective, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is made exclusively by the Bhutanese cast and crew which makes this nomination all the more special for the people of the country. The highly competitive nature of the Oscar nomination rounds also make it very hard for films or features from the smaller industries to make it to the top. They are directly pitted against all the big budget pieces of work that involve more sophisticated production.

This nomination could also be a significant moment for the Academy Awards as well, in their attempts towards inclusivity and representation. This moment is as key as the first Korean film winning the Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards.

A peek into Bhutan

Bhutanese have always been a proud people, coexisting in closer proximity with their natural and cultural heritage. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, is an artistic feature that provides an accurate lens into the lives of the nomadic communities of Bhutan and the importance that yaks have in the Bhutanese culture as well as their day to day lives.

The film itself has been shot in one of the most remote valleys of Bhutan with a lack of proper production equipment coupled with the physical challenges associated with difficult terrain along with a lack of electricity. The fact that the director primarily filmed the movie with amateur actors who were familiar with the remote ways of life in Bhutan gave the feature the kind of authenticity that it needed to make a mark. The challenges posed by the lack of resources allowed the team to tilt towards resorting to renewable sources of energy for their work. The fact that this film’s production has been largely carbon negative adds to its uniqueness even further. The production team researched for solar panels and batteries while also recording the data regarding rainfall in order to time their production schedules. These logistical challenges were met by the crew with great prowess.

This particular moment would be a landmark for the budding artists in Bhutan and also inspire the young storytellers to remain authentic to their cultural heritage while providing a unique perspective through their art. Cinema can be a beautiful way to express and showcase the reality to the audience and Bhutan’s entry into the Oscars is a reminder that young talent needs to be recognised and it paves the way towards building a more inclusive artistic community. For Bhutan, the tool of cinema could be more importantly a way towards expressing the uniqueness of the Bhutanese cultural identity and take part in the artistic dialogues.


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