“Lunana”, candidate for the Oscars: a transformed yak, a classroom and a teacher

Did you know that Bhutan has an official policy of pursuing “Gross National Happiness” for all of its citizens? Or that it demands an education for every child? All this and more, I discovered the charming “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom”, nominated for an Oscar for best international feature film. It is the story of a young teacher who, at first reluctantly and without being fully aware of it, discovers happiness where he never thought he would find it.

At the start of the film, Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) has one more year of teaching in his mandatory five-year government appointment. But what he really wants to do is give up final year and immigrate to Australia, where he dreams of becoming a pop singing sensation.

Bhutan’s Ministry of Education has other ideas. He entrusts him to complete his term in the village of Lunana, atop the receding Himalayan glaciers, where he will preside over what is described as “the most remote school in the world”.

Why we wrote this

Sometimes happiness is elusive if only one path to it is considered. In the Oscar-nominated film ‘Lunana’, an unexpected assignment gives a teacher new perspectives and a deeper understanding of his country.

The arduous week-long trek from his residence in the city of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, to Lunana – population 56 – convinces the inexperienced, continually complaining to Ugyen that he must find a way out. The enthusiastic welcome he receives when he finally arrives there does not deter him. Neither the grateful elders of the village nor the radiant faces of his very young students have much effect on him. Not at first anyway.

Writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji is fully aware that he is playing a predictable narrative here, but he unfolds it with sincere simplicity. The film is, after all, a kind of fable. And it’s by no means all smooth and light; a necessary tension of sadness floats through this narrative. How could it be otherwise? As much as Ugyen warms to his surroundings, he knows – as do the children and the villagers – that his stay from summer to fall will end when he returns before the winter storms.

In Ugyen’s new world, temporary as it is, electricity is hit and miss at best and the main source of ignition is dried yak dung. His classroom — which, yes, houses a yak — is initially devoid of a blackboard and chalk. The educational tools, left by his predecessor, are rare. And yet, as we discover with Ugyen, these losses are surmountable. The kids are led by class captain Pem Zam – a 9-year-old charmer from Lunana essentially playing herself – and their thirst for learning is quite compelling. I wish there were more scenes of the enthusiastic new Ugyen tending to his herd, but “Lunana” demonstrates, as few films have ever done, how inspired schooling can leap over even the odds. the most abject.

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Ugyen Dorji (played by Sherab Dorji) discovers some supplies and a large yak in his classroom in the Himalayas in “Lunana”.

Not that Lunana is exactly a slum. Shot on location, the film is adorned with sweeping mountain vistas, draped in low cloud, that are so resplendent you can practically breathe them off screen. The inhabitants, played mostly by locals – many of whom, like their characters, have never traveled outside the village – literally revere their natural surroundings. When Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), a young woman and yak herder who befriends Ugyen, sings a beatific song, it crosses the hills like a sweet prayer.

Countering this romanticism is the belief, expressed by adults, that however delightful this world may be, it is not promising enough for their children. The reason teachers are revered in Lunana is because, in the words of little Pem Zam, they “touch the future”. Parents want their children to be more than herders of Himalayan yaks. They love them enough to part with them, maybe forever.

Ugyen’s city ways and penchant for Western pop culture are not seen as threats to Lunana. They are more like a harbinger of new possibilities for a new generation. Ultimately, the real challenge of this story lies with Ugyen: he realizes that no matter how far he travels from Lunana, his wistful wonder will always be within him. It will be the same for the love of his people. Their kindness transforms him.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Lunana” is available in select theaters and through streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and Apple TV+. It’s in Dzongkha with English subtitles and is not rated.