Yak in the classroom: How a low-budget Bhutanese drama made Oscar history

Pawo Choyning Dorji has more in common with the protagonist of his first film than meets the eye. Like Ugyen, the reluctant school teacher of his Oscar nominee Lunana: a yak in the classroom, the 38-year-old filmmaker has also traveled uncharted territory for the sake of his home country. Ugyen’s final year of compulsory government service and Dorji’s attempt to bring Bhutanese cinema to the masses can be traced back to Lunana – a forgotten village in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan that sits 3,600 meters above sea level. But Dorji didn’t expect his unassuming independent to earn an Oscar nod. Or go down in history as Bhutan’s very first nomination.

In the running for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars on Sunday (March 27), luna follows Sherab Dorji’s Ugyen, who dreams of escaping to Australia and becoming a singer. His plans are derailed, however, when he is assigned to the film’s titular village for a year-long assignment, which he accepts with some resentment. Living among the locals and adapting to Lunana’s gentle pace, he continues to forge deep bonds with the schoolchildren in his care, as this quietly uplifting film explores the true meaning of joy, purpose and connection.

When luna was first announced as an Oscar nominee, social media was abuzz with questions about the film’s title “yak”. Those who have watched Dorji’s film know that it is literal: a yak named Yorbu is indeed in Ugyen’s class. Norbu (meaning “wish-granting jewel”) has also been interpreted as a metaphor for Ugyen himself, since the symbol of a precious jewel is used in Himalayan Buddhist culture to mean his “lama” or “teacher”. .

While Western film audiences may have woken up later to luna than the other candidates in the category, his appointment represents a historic moment for Bhutan. Dorji’s film is only the second Bhutanese film to be submitted for consideration – after 1999 The mug, by Dorji’s own “lama”, Khyentse Norbu. Not for lack of trying though. luna was also the official government submission in 2020 but, says Dorji The Independent, it was rejected for a technicality. Academy rules require that all films that are not in English must be routed through the official selection committee of their country of origin. However, this autonomous committee loses its validity if the country it represents does not submit any work for a consecutive period of five years. “And we had not submitted [a film] in more than two decades! Dorji said.

This was not the only administrative problem faced by Dorji; the Academy did not recognize either Bhutan or its official language Dzongkha when he attempted to resubmit his film in 2021.”[The Oscars] basically had to update their whole website,” he laughs, thinking back to Lunana’s rise. And while he was tougher to get through than Dorji originally imagined, his debut film is proof that he isn’t easily intimidated. “Still today, [Lunana] has no electricity or grid connectivity,” he says, describing some of the technical challenges of making a “solar-powered film set in the most remote school in the world, surrounded by Himalayan glaciers.” Not to mention altitude sickness.

Now all that’s left for the Indian-born Bhutanese filmmaker is to enjoy luna‘s success – without what he calls an “unrealistic” expectation of winning the tiny Himalayan kingdom its first Oscar, too. “It’s really for the journey rather than the outcome,” he says. Facing Paulo Sorrentino God’s handDanish animated feature film To run awayby Ryusuke Hamaguchi drive my carand Joachim Treves The worst person in the world, he says it’s “surreal” to be competing against “four of the most accomplished directors” in the world today. Recognizing Bhutan’s poor record at the Oscars, lunaWith his small budget and a nascent local film industry, Dorji adds good-naturedly, “I’m not supposed to be here!”

While reviews for Dorji’s film have been largely positive, Japan’s Best Picture hopeful drive my car is the favorite to win the award for best international feature film – and for good reason. Hamaguchi’s on-screen reimagining of Haruki Murakami’s self-titled short story is also nominated for two additional categories – Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It means that drive my car joins a short list of six international films (funded outside the US) that have received Oscar nominations in the same categories. Five of those six won the Oscar for Best Non-English Language Film.

Children taught by Ugyen in ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’

(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Win or lose, however, Dorji says he intends to celebrate his film with the residents of Lunana, many of whom also starred in the film. In a separate interview, the director revealed that the lack of trained Bhutanese actors has often proven to be an obstacle for filmmakers in the country. However, after a year and a half of training, Lunana’s children were able to deliver such authentic performances that Dorji felt he had been lucky. Now he wants to share his success and his good fortune with the people who accompanied him on the road to the Oscars. “I promised [the residents of Lunana] that we would bring the film back to them to watch,” he explains. “I think screening it for the people of Lunana would come full circle for my film.”