Inspirational story of Bhutan’s first Oscar consent: ‘Lunana: A Yak in the

“They never set foot in a movie or watched a movie,” he said. “They acted naturally, as they were, and it worked in a beautiful way.” He shared more about the movie and its message in an interview with NPR.

Shooting in Lunana has certainly faced many challenges.

It certainly did. The weather conditions are harsh, and it is always raining or snowing. There are only two months of windows when the sun shines – in September and October. Although September and October were considered pleasant months, it was very cold. I had three level pants and a thermal jacket. We would shoot all day and come home and there would be no lights or beds – we would sleep on the floor, blankets and yak hair mats. It was too cold to even change, so we’d sleep in our clothes. Bathing was a luxury and the locals bathed once a year. I have not taken a bath for two months! Surprisingly, when you’re there, living that life with the Highlanders and the Yaks, you won’t miss it. I felt very clear.

And then on top of that, you find this film carbon negative, right? What was that need?

We had a good production team who researched the best solar panels and batteries. We had to collect 15 years of data which records the rainfall every month and that is how we can plan our shooting. If it rains, we have no sunlight to charge our batteries. If that didn’t work, we took two power generators and 2,000 liters of gasoline, which we left for the locals because we didn’t need it. When we were making the film, there was always a concern that we would not be able to finish it because of this logistical challenge. I told my crew that if it happened, it would happen. We should try, but we can try and fail!

In Lunana: A yak in the classroom, a Bhutanese teacher – against his will – is sent to a remote village to work for a year. A spiritual awakening comes in a remote place where there is no electricity and great respect for educators. A student at Lunana says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up because she wants to “touch the future.” (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

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

I am very spiritual, and Buddhism is an important part of my life. Respect for the teacher or guru is an important aspect of Buddhism and, indeed, all oriental culture. I was particularly keen on making him a teacher because I felt it was a special profession. In Bhutan, we are currently losing thousands of young people to Australia. Many of them are teachers. And they’re leaving because they’re not happy with their job and they don’t understand what important responsibilities they have back home. The village we were in was one of the few schools and teachers in the area. The actual teacher in the village let us use the school and worked with us to make the film. The film was inspired by his story.

Yak in a classroom with children.
Tytler yak from Lunana: A yak in the classroom. (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

While we were shooting, I saw this tarpaulin tent dug in a field, and smoke billowed from it. Four days later, I poked my head out to find out who pitched it. I saw a grandmother trying to light a fire with pulses to make dinner for her granddaughter. He said they lived six hours away on the hill. She brought her granddaughter here because she heard there was a teacher! There was no teacher in his village. I was very touched by his sacrifice.

It reminds me of a strong line from the movie. A student at Lunana says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up because she wants to “touch the future.”

People all over the world have told me that they were influenced by that line and paused the movie to think about it. There is a funny story behind it though. In 11th grade, I was called to the dean’s office because I was in trouble. While I was being reprimanded, I noticed a sign on his head that read, “I am a teacher. I touch the future.” I thought it was so deep that I had to write in the script!

Happiness is the central theme of the film. How important is happiness for Bhutanese people?

I am very proud to be a Bhutanese – from a country that puts happiness above all else. When the constitution of our country was first framed [in 2008], It says that the purpose of the government was to provide happiness to its citizens and if the citizens are not happy then the government has no right to exist. So the Gross National Happiness is the philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan. When our beloved fourth king of Bhutan was crowned, he was 17 years old. In his coronation speech in 1974, he said that total national happiness was more important than total domestic goods. We don’t try to be rich, we try to be happy.

The Oscar-nominated film by Bhutanese writer and director Pao Choying Darji is set in the real village of Lunana, a remote community of nomadic yak herdsmen located at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet. (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

However, you said that many young people are leaving the country because they are not happy.

I have noticed that because of our emphasis on happiness, people often have romantic notions about Bhutan. Yes, we are happy, but we also suffer from poverty and face real challenges. The whole country is dependent on tourism, which was severely damaged during the coronavirus epidemic. There is widespread unemployment, mental health is a problem, and our young people are leaving. I tried to touch it in the picture – that happiness cannot be measured. We cannot call a country or an individual the happiest, because the causes and conditions that create that happiness are always changing. When we speak of happiness in the Buddhist tradition, we actually mean contentment and acceptance.

Do you think modernization is affecting happiness?

It is, of course, but I think change is inevitable. How Bhutan has evolved over the years is unique. As a nation, we came together in 1901. We were the last country in the world to allow access to television or the Internet because we welcomed that isolation and saw it as a way to save our lives. But when we opened in the early 2000s, it seemed like it was too much, too early. Television has become the most talked about item in society. People were selling their yaks for TV. Our old way of life has changed very quickly.

It’s ironic though. Until the last day of filming, I was worried about whether I was doing the right thing by infiltrating the lives of the villagers. When I left Lunana, the village was being modernized. The government is building roads and erecting telephone poles. The villagers were happy. Their standard of living is bound to improve. People will be more connected. But I knew that life was going to change irrevocably and the last time I saw the footage of my Lunana we would see it so untouchable.

Pem Jam, a little girl from the village, for example, is now on Facebook and TikTok – and she sends me videos of her dancing!