Did you know, there is a small but growing population of Bhutanese people living in Britain? Do you even know where Bhutan is? If you’ve watched Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, you’ll remember it was partially set there but not filmed there. And if you remember how beautiful that looked as sets and CGI, the real Bhutan is also breathtaking.
A landlocked country in what is defined as South Asia, it shares borders with China (Lhasa) to the north and the northeastern states of India to the south and is close to Nepal and Bangladesh, sharing both a tumultuous history but also a rich culture with the former.
The multi-award-winning, Oscar-nominated Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a 2019 drama film that shines a light on the perhaps little known country. Following the physical and metaphorical journey of a young teacher Ugyen from the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu, A Yak in the Classroom is about his trek from the bustling city to what is thought to be one of the remotest villages with the most remote school in not just Bhutan but maybe the world, Lunana.
Ugyen – nearly always listening to music on his iPod and someone who scoffs at tradition – is initially very resistant to the “order” from his boss to go to Lunana because he is clearly not enjoying his mandatory five-year training, of which he has one year left to complete. And when Lunana is more than an eight day hike away – and that’s after getting to the nearest town of Gasa due to the mountainous regions in between, which a four hour drive from Thimpu – you can understand his hesitancy. Will he forfeit his job with the Bhutanese government and leave Lunana and its barely 60 inhabitants just days after they excitedly welcome him? The touching film takes him and viewers on a path to discovering true happiness (Bhutan is known for prizing happiness above GDP and economic possessions) – is it pursuing a career as a singer in Australia or is it surrounding himself in a village surrounded by the Himalayas, teaching young children and living with more yaks than humans?
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a natural, visual masterpiece that captures the untouched essence of rural Bhutan as well as its custom-heavy culture and despite its slow pacing and relatively uneventful plot, it is a delight to watch that keeps you mesmerised throughout. While audiences may guess whether Ugyen leaves his post early, stays or goes come winter and returns next Spring or not to finally fulfil his dream of emigrating to Australia, the film focuses more on the discovery of other themes in addition to happiness. These include respect (everyone admires Ugyen simply because of his profession, even though he appears to detest it), sharing and learning from each other (done predominantly through music and the complete opposites of a technology-driven world and that of one with no phone signal, electricity or even the right kind of wood to light fires), and tradition (from the history of yak herders to the ideology behind folk singing and from the gesture of allowing guests to have the honour of eating from wooden bowls to making offerings at mountain passes for safe passage, Bhutan is, like many other ESEA and South Asian countries – and perhaps more so, very reliant on its culture, customs, history and traditions).
And having watched the film and learnt a bit about Bhutan as well, it makes me understand if people of Bhutanese and Nepalese descent would consider themselves as part of the wider ESEA community due to closer similarities than the South Asian community.
What was perhaps most astonishing about the production of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom are the genuine lengths director Pawo Choyning Dorji (in his feature directorial debut) took to film it. From mimicking the trek Ugyen takes in the film to get to Lunana with his crew and their equipment to hiring many real local inhabitants of the village to essentially portray themselves (including class captain Pem Zam) in which he effectively calls a “documentary of their lives”, Dorji managed to do exactly as he wanted: “capture the purity of the place and the people.”
A Yak in the Classroom deservedly put Bhutan on the map as a place with so much to offer and explore, even if the country is admittedly a third-world country that many young people like Ugyen are desperate to leave, and has an extremely small and inexperienced film and TV industry. It certainly opens up a lot of potential as somewhere with many more stories to tell to the world, even if the country itself is a difficult to place to visit as much as it is a difficult place for their citizens to leave. If there’s one film that would encourage you to not check your phone for two hours as you watch Ugyen unable to use his phone too – for several months – and opens your eyes to worlds beyond our own, make it Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.
Thanks to Crystallised and Peccadillo Pictures for having me at the screening to preview it at HOME in Manchester before its release to the general public on 10th March 2023, although now knowing there is an increasing population of Bhutanese refugees and now British Bhutanese residents across the country and in particular, Manchester, I would have loved to have seen some of them attending to watch it too…