In a time when bigger is assumed to be better, especially in terms of budget and star power, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” scored a surprising Oscar nomination for Best International Feature, the first ever for Bhutan, a country in the Himalayas with a population of less than 800,000.
In the COVID era, however, the film’s core messaging of a simple life, where people help people and educators are worthy of honor and praise, resonates more strongly than ever. So many of us discovered the importance of these values during the pandemic, and Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), the film’s protagonist, realizes it through a crisis of his own.
When we first meet Ugyen, he is an unsatisfied teacher working in Thimphu, the nation’s capital, with dreams of escaping to Australia and becoming a singer, despite his grandmother’s insistence that being a teacher and a civil servant is a better job than anything he will find abroad. Before he can do that, his government employers send him to the remote village of Lunana, accessible only by horse and foot, to finish out his contract.
If Ugyen finds the city unsatisfying, imagine his displeasure at giving up material comforts, such as listening to music and using his phone, to live in a region without regular electricity or even indoor plumbing. Regardless of how disgruntled Ugyen feels about this transfer, the villagers are ecstatic that he is there, greeting him like a king with all they have to offer. And while “all they have” isn’t much by material standards, even he cannot resist the power of pure kindness where people give so freely of their few possessions.
In Lunana, education is so hard to come by that it is highly treasured. What he finds are students so eager to learn that they come to find him if he is late. Charged with this duty is class captain Pem Zam (her real name), whose optimism is boundless and completely untainted by the unfortunate cards she’s been dealt, including an alcoholic father. One student even tells him that Ugyen wants to be a teacher like him “because a teacher touches the future.”
The yak, Ugyen learns, is a valuable asset in Lunana, something he realizes firsthand as he grows accustomed to using the animal’s dung as fuel for stoves and heaters. At one point, he is even granted a yak of his own — Norbu, who, as the film’s title reveals, resides in the classroom. In time, Ugyen finds himself warming not just to the people but also to the culture, even recalling bits that he had forgotten from his own childhood. Where he once sang Western songs, he now embraces those of the village, particularly “Yak Lebi Lhadar,” in praise of the celebrated animal, frequently sung by the beautiful Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung) on top of the mountain as an offering.
Taking it a step further, he begins to use those songs to teach his students. Ugyen’s presence is so powerful that Asha (Kunzang Wangdi), the village’s wise leader, begins to sing again, something he hadn’t done in the many years since his wife’s death. And the change in Asha suggests that Ugyen has an even more divine and powerful connection to Lunana, one that conjures up the richest folklore.
What first-time director Pawo Choyning Dorji — who attended college in the U.S. and is the son of a Bhutanese diplomat — achieves is a reminder of how cinema can connect us to what matters most in life, sharing a specific story from a part of the world most of us will never experience, but zoning in on matters of the heart that resonate in a universal way. “Lunana” is also a testament to the vitality of making cinema available to those without standard resources: The actors are all novices, with many of them never even having seen a movie before, and the production was shot on digital cameras that relied upon solar power as the area’s main energy source.
The taste of Oscar voters is often questioned, but they get it right here. “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is more than what Ang Lee calls a “breath of fresh air”; it’s an affirmation that all films, however humble their origin, can matter and be counted.
“Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is currently in US theaters and available on demand and via Kanopy.