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Pawo Choyning Dorji, Director of ‘Lunana: A Yak in The Classroom,’ on Breaking Boundaries for Bhutan Through The Oscars

"We shot the film in one of the most remote human settlements in the world using only solar energy to power our production."

Lunana A Yak in the Classroom
Courtesy of Everett Collection

In a new series, Variety catches up with the directors of the films shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar to discuss their road to the awards, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s taken them off guard.

Bhutan’s first Oscar entry in 23 years, Pawo Choyning Dorji’s feature debut “Lunana: A Yak in The Classroom” is handled by Samuel Goldwyn Films in North America. The movie follows a young teacher from Bhutan’s capital who dreams of emigrating to Australia to become a singer and instead finds himself assigned to a school in the most remote village in Northern Bhutan, where he unexpectedly bonds with local children and finds happiness.

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar?

The shortlisting has meant so much because it’s a historic moment for our little Himalayan Kingdom. It has captivated the whole country, from city dwellers to yak herders in the glacial mountains, from school children to Buddhist monks in isolated monasteries. They have all expressed how joyful they are in knowing that a story about our culture and people has been recognized by the world. This is my directorial debut; I made this film with a crew who are mostly all amateurs, with a cast of yak herders who hadn’t even seen the world beyond their village. We shot the film in one of the most remote human settlements in the world using only solar energy to power our production. I think the shortlisting is a celebration of the possibilities of creativity and the art of filmmaking.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your campaign thus far?

Leading up to the shortlisting, it had been a real trial and error method of learning the whole process. The Bhutanese government had submitted our film last year, but it was not eligible because the Selection Committee had not been approved by the Academy. The Academy also requires committees to have submitted at least one film in the past five years to have the validity to submit. Bhutan’s last submission was 23 years ago! The Academy was kind enough to advise us to put together a Selection Committee, and then apply the following year.

Once the Academy accepted us as Bhutan’s submission, we were frantically rushing to complete the formalities and submit the film for consideration, only to realize that the Academy website did not even have ‘Bhutan’ as a country option in the menu. When they finally added Bhutan as a country option, we then realized the website did not have ‘Dzongkha’ (Bhutan’s national language) as an option for language! We had to again inform the Academy and wait for them to update the website.

Although you are shortlisted in international feature category, the best picture category has been devoid of non-English language features. “Parasite” (2019) was the first winner in history. Do you feel international voices are siloed in media and film criticism? Are there ways to improve this process when it comes to awards season?

I think it’s very important for us to remember that even though the Academy Awards is celebrated and recognized globally, it is at the end of the day an “American” event…So it’s understandable that English-language films get more attention than foreign-language ones. The fact that the Oscars even have a Best International Feature category is something we, non-English filmmakers, should be grateful for as other regional awards don’t even have categories for foreign filmmakers. The Golden Horse Awards don’t have an award for non-Chinese films, and the Asia Pacific Awards don’t have an award for films outside that region. I think we should see “Parasite” winning different categories and being the first non-English best picture winner [as a sign that the] Academy is becoming more international.

When trying to get consumer audiences to watch an international feature, there seems to be a focus on the length of a movie, but when something like “Avengers: Endgame” gets a three-hour runtime, Marvel fans are ecstatic and say they could go longer if they wanted to. Is that fair?

Well, I think each film has its own purpose and audience. Most international films are made for other purposes rather than to “entertain” the audience; many are expressions of art and creativity, while others try to raise awareness about certain topics, culture and people. “Drive My Car” is a long movie, but it is an excellent example of an international art film that keeps the audience connected and entertained.

The Academy has favored European countries, with Italy and France winning triple the number of times than a country like Japan. How can we encourage more diversity from all countries globally?

There is a direct correlation between how well-to-do a region is, to how developed the region’s film industry is. Poor countries don’t have the resources to help their film industry. I know this for a fact because I come from a poor country. In regions like Asia, Japan, South Korea and China’s film industries are the leaders, because they are the most developed Asian nations with the strongest economies.

When you look at the 26 different countries that have won the international feature film Oscar, only Iran and Tunisia are the exceptions, [in terms of] countries that aren’t rich and developed. Among the top 10 winners, Japan is the sole non-European. Japan is an economic powerhouse. “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” was made on a fraction of the budget of other shortlisted films, with a non-professional crew, one camera body made in 2014 and two lights. If cultural diversity is needed in the film circuit, then Third World films must be given more support.

You are representing your country to an American awards body (although there are voters who are international). How do you feel about being that representative?

As a Bhutanese, this is an historic moment. Never has a Bhutanese film been shortlisted. I am just grateful that the Academy has given this platform for Bhutan to share with the world our culture and our stories.

As your country’s representative film, is there any government grant/fund you can access for the campaign?

I have heard that the other shortlisted films are getting grants and funds for their Oscar campaign. For “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” we have not received any grant or fund from the Bhutanese government. I also did not seek any support from them. Though my country is seen by many as one of the happiest countries in the world, we are a country that is also a very poor one. Even if I had been offered grants or funds, I would not be able to bring myself to accept it, especially during these difficult times.

Is the film telling a true story? If not, what inspired you to make this film?

Every aspect of the film was inspired by true accounts I collected through my trekking trips across yak herding villages, where I personally experienced the tough but beautiful and fulfilling lives these people were living. Lunana is an area that is so remote that its name translates into ‘dark valley,’ so I wanted capture the genuineness of a people who were untouched by the world and to see if we could actually discover in the shadows and darkness what we are so desperately seeking in the light of modernization.

What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of working with Lunana’s villagers?

Most of the Lunana villagers have never seen the world beyond their village, so for us it was challenging because it was like time traveling back into the past. And I think the most rewarding aspect of working with these beautiful people is seeing how pure-hearted they are. The whole village lives as one family, and everyone supports one other.