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A yak, a ticked-off teacher, an Oscar nomination for Bhutan: We interview the director

A villager brings a yak into the classroom so the new teacher will understand how important the animals are to the village of nomadic yak herders. Yak dung is important too — used to warm homes.

The film Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature category, traces the year-long transformative journey of a young Bhutanese teacher, Ugyen Dorji (played by actor Sherab Dorji).

Bhutanese writer and director Pawo Choyning Dorji's first film — and Bhutan's first ever Oscar nomination — is set in the real village of Lunana, a remote community of nomadic yak herders situated at a dizzying altitude of more than 11,000 feet.

When Ugyen is told he must relocate there from the capital city of Thimpu to serve out the end of his teaching contract, he tries to convince his boss that the move would make him sick. She snaps back, "This is not an altitude problem, but an attitude problem. Are you even Bhutanese?"

So he postpones his dream of becoming a singer in Australia and instead goes on a long van ride, then a five-day trek with nights spent in caves and finally to a valley with a total population of 50 people and no electricity — and yes, a yak in the classroom, put there by a young woman from the village who wants the teacher to cherish it, to understand the relationship the villagers have with their yaks and to have access to yak dung, which is used to warm homes and seen to be of great value.

Life in the Himalayas proves difficult but rewarding for Ugyen. It was a similar experience for Pawo Choyning Dorji, who spent a year and a half preparing for filming, hauling in all of the necessary equipment and overseeing the construction of housing for his crew. He used the time to get to know the cast of locals he hired to play themselves, and slipped details of their lives into the script.

"They'd never set foot in a cinema or seen a movie," he says. "They acted naturally, as they were, and it worked out in a beautiful way." He shared more about the movie and its message in an interview with NPR.

Shooting in Lunana must have posed many challenges.

It certainly did. The weather conditions are harsh, and it is always raining or snowing. There's only a two-month window when the sun shines — in September and October. Even though September and October are considered pleasant months, it was still very cold. I had three layers of pants and thermal jackets. We'd shoot the entire day and come home and there would be no light or beds — We slept on the floor, on blankets and yak hair mats. It was too cold to even change, so we'd sleep in our clothes. Taking a shower was a luxury and locals took a bath once a year. I didn't shower for two months! The strange thing is that when you're up there, living that life with the highlanders and the yaks, you don't miss it. I felt very clean.

And then on top of that, you made this film carbon negative, right? What did that require?

We had a good production team who researched the best solar panels and batteries. We had to collate 15 years of data that recorded the rainfall of every month and that's how we could plan our shoots. If there's rain, there's no sunlight to charge our batteries. In case it didn't work out, we carried two power generators and 2,000 liters of petrol, which we ended up leaving for the locals because we didn't need it. When we were making the film, there was always a constant worry that we wouldn't be able to finish it, given these logistic challenges. I told my crew that if it happens, it happens. We should try, but we can fail trying!

Why did you choose to highlight the value of a teacher, especially in remote communities like this?

I am very spiritual, and Buddhism is an important part of my life. Veneration of the teacher or the guru is an important aspect of Buddhism and indeed, all Eastern cultures. I was particular about making him a teacher because I felt that it was a special profession. In Bhutan, we're currently losing our youth to Australia by the thousands. Many of them are teachers. And they're leaving because they're not happy with their jobs and they don't realize what an important responsibility they have back home. The village we were at was one of the few villages in the region with a school and teacher. The actual teacher of the village let us use the school and worked with us to make the film. The film was inspired by his stories.

When we were shooting, I saw this tarpaulin tent pitched in a field, smoke curling out of it. Four days later, I poked my head in to find out who had pitched it. I found a grandmother trying to light a fire with twigs, to make dinner for her granddaughter. She said they lived six hours away, up the mountain. She'd brought her granddaughter here because she heard there was a teacher! There was no teacher in her village. I was so touched by her sacrifice.

That reminds me of a powerful line in the film. One of the students in Lunana says he wants to be a teacher when he grows up because he wants to "touch the future."

People around the world have told me that they were impressed by that line and paused the movie to think about it. There's a funny story behind it though. In grade 11, I was summoned to the Dean's office because I had gotten in trouble. While I was being scolded, I noticed a sign over her head that said, "I am a teacher. I touch the future." I thought it was so profound that I had to write it in the script!

Seeking happiness is the central premise of the film. How important is happiness to Bhutanese people?

I am so proud to be Bhutanese — to come from a country that places happiness above all else. When the constitution of our country was first drafted [in 2008], it stated that the purpose of the government was to provide happiness for its citizens and that if the citizens weren't happy, the government doesn't have the right to exist. So Gross National Happiness is the philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan. When our beloved fourth king of Bhutan was coronated, he was 17 years old. In his coronation address in 1974, he said Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product. We don't try to be a rich country, we try to be a happy one.

Yet, you said many young people are emigrating because they aren't happy.

I've seen that because of our emphasis on happiness, people often have a romanticized perception of Bhutan. Yes, we're happy, but we also suffer poverty and face real challenges. The whole country depends on tourism, which was badly hit during the coronavirus pandemic. There is massive unemployment, mental health is an issue, and our younger people are leaving. I've tried to touch on this in the film — that happiness cannot be measured. We can't say one country or person is the happiest, because the causes and conditions that create that happiness are ever-changing. When we talk about happiness in Buddhist tradition, we really mean contentment and acceptance.

Do you think modernization is affecting happiness?

It definitely is, but I also think change is inevitable. Bhutan is very unique in how it has evolved over the years. As a nation, we came together in 1901. We were the last country in the world to allow television or connect to the Internet because we welcomed that isolation and saw it as a means to preserve our way of life. But when we opened up in the early 2000s, it felt like it was too much, too soon. Television became the hottest item in society. People were selling their yaks for TVs. Our old ways of life transformed too quickly.

It's ironic though. Until the last day of filming, I was wracked by worry over whether I was doing the right thing by intruding into the villagers' lives. When I left Lunana, the village was being modernized. The government was laying roads and erecting telephone poles. The villagers were happy. Their standard of living was bound to improve. People would be more connected. But I knew life was going to change irrevocably and my footage of Lunana would be the last time we could see it so untouched.

Pem Zam, one of the little girls from the village, for instance is now on Facebook and TikTok — and she sends me videos of her dancing!

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science, and development, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The British Medical Journal , BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on twitter @kamal_t Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.