Pawo Choyning Dorji on Moving Mountains to Make “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom”

Ask any filmmaker and they’re bound to compare the experience to climbing a mountain, but in the case of Pawo Choyning Dorji, who was entering largely uncharted territory by making a narrative film in his home country of Bhutan, nestled in the Eastern Himalayas, that challenge became literal.

“When we shoot in the city, that’s something we take for granted because we have cars, trucks, everything,” says Dorji, whose film was recently shortlisted for Best International Feature at the Oscars. “And when we’re shooting in Lunana, even to move from one location to another location, which is about 200 meters away, is very difficult because you have to carry all the gear yourself and you are shooting at almost 15,000 feet above sea level, so even a slight climb, you’re out of breath, you have altitude sickness kicking in, so it’s very difficult.”

It’s the rest of the world he’s now leaving breathless with his crowdpleaser “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” a film that’s gentle spirit belies how improbable an endeavor it actually was to take on. Dorji tells the story of a young man name Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), who has dreams of pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter but still has a year to go in his mandatory service to Bhutan as an educator and while he awaits a move abroad to Australia to start a new life, the ministry has other plans for him, sending him to teach in the most remote village of Lunana where it’ll be hard to even listen to music since electricity is spotty. Dorji cheekily notes how far Lunana is from the civilization Ugyen knows with subtitles chalking up the altitude each step of the way there, but unlike the city where it can seem like few are concerned for him, he is welcomed with open arms by the small community that seeks to know more about the outside world that seems so distant, particularly a young student named Pem Zam (Pem Zam).

Once seen covering Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” at open mic nights, Ugyen begins to be enchanted by songs that still hold currency within the village after being bandied about for generations and they are charmed by him as well as he starts to acclimate to a tech-free existence and the occasional incursion of local wildlife. Using a process that brought the real personal histories of the cast onto the screen, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” Dorji is able to capture life in the rarely depicted region while bringing it home wherever one is in the world with the quite endearing exchange that takes place between the community that is eager to learn what they can and a teacher who could learn a thing or two from them. Fittingly after a grand premiere at the London Film Festival in the fall of 2019, “Lunana” has become a favorite at regional festivals around the world after the pandemic complicated plans for a traditional release and as the film makes its way to America this week, Dorji spoke about why he’s grateful for the long runway, his arduous journey to bring the film to the screen against all odds and bringing the best out of a cast that not only hadn’t acted before, but many of whom hadn’t ever seen a camera.

How did this come about?

In Bhutan, there’s this trend where all these youngsters like Ugyen are leaving because they want to seek their happiness elsewhere. It’s quite ironic because around the world, everyone thinks we’re the happiest country. Whenever I meet someone and I tell them, “Hey, I’m from Bhutan,” the next question I get is “Hey, you must be very happy.” Yet people [from Bhutan] seem to seek their happiness in the urban, in the modern, glittering lights of the west, so I wanted to create a story where the protagonist goes at the opposite end — into the darkness, into Lunana, and I wanted to explore if we could find what we are desperately seeking in the light in the shadows.

Music becomes a beautiful way to express the clash between tradition and contemporary culture. Was that there from the start?

As in any other culture, music is such an important part of our life in Bhutan, but sadly as we modernize and open ourselves up to the outside world, we are losing our own traditional songs. Like the “Yak Song,” that’s been forgotten. And I think globalization has its positives, but it calls for everyone to be the same. Everyone has to speak the same language, dress the same way, sing the same kinds of songs, so in Bhutan, as we opened up and as we globalized, I’m seeing a lot of Bhutanese rap and I’m thinking it’s so sad that these beautiful songs of our tradition, of our past are being replaced and forgotten, so I wanted to incorporate that music aspect. It contrasted with the kinds of songs that Uygen wants to sing, so both the “Yak Song” and the song that the children sing in the backdrop of the mountain are both traditional songs that through this movie, I’m trying to bring them back into relevance.

How did Sherab come into this? You’re not only asking for an actor with skills, but someone to go on an adventure with you.

It was amazing. In Bhutan, we don’t have professional actors, so when I have to cast people, what I do once I create the characters and write the script is to try to find people whose actual lives mirror that of the character so it’s easier for them to portray that character. For Sherab, he was talented and has screen presence. He had never acted in a film before, but he was confident and what sealed the deal was I was talking to him and he told me he dropped out of school because he was so passionate about music and he was singing in bars. Finally, when I asked him what are you doing in the next few months, he said, “I’m waiting for my visa to go to Australia,” and I thought, “Oh this is perfect [for the story],” so that’s how he came in. And aside from Sherab, everyone else in the film is acting for the first time.

Are you reshaping the story after you meet people? I understand Pem Zam, in particular, hews very closely to her real life.

I was making changes to the script even while we’re shooting because I’m encountering all these new individuals and hearing about their stories, and Pem Zem, definitely. I had a character in the movie, it was a girl, but not singing like this. When I went to Lunana and met Pem Zam, I was amazed by her talent, but also this beautiful pure confidence that she has and this confidence comes not from like pride or arrogance, but because she has no concept [of the world at large]. She’s never seen the world beyond her village, so she doesn’t have reference points. She’s never seen a car, she’s never seen a movie. That’s such a beautiful purity and I wanted that in the movie. And the more I learned about her – I learned that her father was always drunk, she didn’t have a mother, she was having this really hard life. She didn’t have this parental figure in her life and that parental figure was the teacher, so it just made more and more sense [to weave into the story]. I felt I had to honor her life. I shouldn’t cast her and tell her to be some character that I created. She should be honoring her own story and sharing her story with the world, so I tweaked the script so it’s her. When we worked together, I would tell her, “This is what we’re doing today. I’m not going to ask you to be anyone else. You’re just sharing your story, just be yourself.”

When that happens, was there anything you may not have anticipated, but you really like about it?

Yeah, many of the classroom scenes. We would just have the class going on and have the camera there and there were these beautiful moments where when the class is going on, this girl is trying to copy notes from the other girl. I didn’t tell the girl to do that, but when it was happening, it was so real. Then there was this scene where a girl started digging her nose in the middle of class and I thought, “Wow, magical moments.” And the teeth brushing scene, for example when I was spending time with the kids, I realized that they had never brushed their teeth in their lives. Up there, there’s no candy, so it’s fine for them, but I thought what if we incorporate a scene where the teacher is teaching them to brush their teeth? And to have that scene, I didn’t want to rehearse it. I wanted us to capture that 8-year-old, 10-year-old children taste toothpaste for the very first time,” so you can see the excitement in their eyes. And they put it on and find it disgusting. [laughs] There were so many magical moments like that.

The toothpaste arrives in a care package to the community that obviously is quite difficult to reach. What was it like getting film supplies to the village?

We were in preproduction for a long time. When I first proposed the idea of shooting a film in Lunana, most of my production team were like, “This is impossible. We could be shooting on the moon at this rate.” Because when we talk about Lunana, the word “Lunana” means the dark valley because it’s so remote, the most desolate place. So to make a feature film movie with no electricity, no natural connection, not even hot water or showers, is unheard of. But for a year, we had an army of mules taking up all our gear, installing our solar batteries, taking up our rations and I have to be frank, I was never confident it would work. When we went up to shoot those scenes in Lunana, I told my crew members, “Hey, there’s a possibility we might not be able to finish this movie because our solar batteries might not be able to charge all of our equipment,” so I said, “If that happens, the movie will end with Ugyen walking up the mountain, fade to black.”

But it worked. There were a lot of challenges. For example, I had no playback. I didn’t know what we were capturing. It was like shooting on film. We only had enough power to charge our camera, our sound equipment and our computers to dump the footage and that’s it. I only saw what we had shot only once I had left Lunana and came back to the studios. But when you go through such hardship as filmmakers and you experience the authentic lives of the highlanders, just this feeling and these emotions and this experience of the filmmakers and this cast and crew, it then translates onto the finished film.

Was a narrative feature a different experience for you?

I never went to film school. I didn’t study film and when people ask me what I do, I don’t introduce myself as a filmmaker, I introduce myself as a storyteller. Photography is my background and I like writing stories as well, so I’m just exploring different mediums through which I can share stories, but I think filmmaking is a very beautiful experience. This whole process of creating characters, creating this world and then work with a team to bring it to life and then finally you share it with the world and it invokes all these emotions, it’s a very intoxicating experience. I really like it.

What’s it been like seeing this moving across the world?

It’s a beautiful experience. The pandemic has, of course, disrupted everything. It’s delayed so many things. A lot of our festival premieres were postponed or cancelled. But in a different way, I feel it’s also extended the life of this film. Even after two years, we seem to be going strong and for people like yourself in America, this is probably the most culturally, linguistically, environmentally diverse film you’re watching, but within this diversity, this film touches upon this universal human theme of finding home, finding where you belong, finding happiness. So during the pandemic when everyone is locked down and we’re building these barriers and you’re having this suspicion about each other, celebrating what makes us similar is very important. It’s a very, very simple story, but it touches on the very basic human quality of trying to find where you belong.

“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” opens on January 21st in Los Angeles and New York.