Quest for Happiness

A Bhutanese film joins the Oscar race.

By Daniyal Talat | April 2022

Pawo Choyning Dorji’s cinematic debut “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” Bhutan’s first Oscar entry in 23 years, had an interesting trajectory before appearing on the Oscar international films list.

The vibrantly composed blockbuster is a narrative centered around the spiritual coming of age of a young man on a quest for happiness far from home, in one of the world’s most remote human settlements.

The film was released in Bhutan in February. It was shot on location in the world’s most remote school in the Himalayan glaciers using solar-charged batteries.

The storey follows Ugyen, a teacher who is transferred to Lunana in northern Bhutan for his last year of study. Ugyen wants to leave as soon as he arrives due to the high altitude and lack of facilities. The local kids attempt to win him over with a warm welcome, but they don’t have much time because the hard winter is about to arrive in the Himalaya’s glacier regions. “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is promoted across foreign markets by Berlin-based Films Boutique and has appeared at various festivals, including Busan, London, and Palm Springs, where it received the Audience Award this year. “Bhutan is a tiny mountainous nation with only a few commercial theatres in the city, and all shows are sold out. People come from all over the nation, some for three days, to watch the film,” Choyning Dorji says.

“On our last day of screening, we had so many people begging to get in that we had to put folding chairs out in the aisles!” Dorji said.

“It’s a really bizarre trip, and for me it truly affirms the power of art and cinema, that if you put your heart into it and share a narrative with the world, it can move from the most isolated school in the world to the most prominent stages in the world,” Dorji says. As a Bhutanese novelist and photographer, his work has appeared in periodicals such as Esquire and the Wall Street Journal. Dorji was trained by Khyentse Norbu, a Bhutanese filmmaker who is also his spiritual Buddhist teacher. “The Cup,” Norbu’s directorial debut in 1999, was the first Bhutanese film to be nominated for an Oscar.

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