The Road from Bhutan to the Oscars for First-Time Director Pawo Choyning Dorji

Being shortlisted for an Academy Award was “surreal,” but on the morning of February 8, 2022, when the nominations were announced, Pawo Choyning Dorji (དཔའ་བོ་ཆོས་དབྱིངས་རྡོ་རྗི།) recalls he wasn’t even sure he was nominated. “I even thought when they announced it, the two hosts (Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jordan) were having a comical moment.” After all, it wasn’t so long ago that a confused Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the wrong Best Picture winner. Dorji, the writer and director of Bhutan’s first Oscar-nominated film “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,”  recalled that 2017 fiasco when “La La Land” was announced instead of the actual winner, “Moonlight.” 

Speaking with  Dorji, one is instantly charmed by his modesty and smile. Dorji was born in Darjeeling, India (23 June 1983). His father was a diplomat and traveled a lot. He attended school in India and later in Bhutan. When asked how many languages he speaks, Dorji said that besides English, “In Bhutan we have many different dialects for a small country. I speak four of that. I speak Tibetan. I speak a little bit of Hindi.” Then he admitted with a chuckle, “And basic Chinese, you could say, because my wife is Taiwanese.”

His wife, Fanyun “Stephanie” Lai, is an actress and producer who also happens to be the daughter of American-born playwright Stan Lai. The couple splits there time between Taiwan, Bhutan and India and have two kids.

Dorji also noted that he used to know French better than English, but claims he’s forgotten all that now. “For me, it was very different because of my father’s job. I grew up outside. I grew up in India; I grew up in Europe;  I grew up in Switzerland; I grew up in the Middle East; I grew up in the US. Having seen everything of the rest of the world, then in my late teens, I went back to Bhutan. It was very different for me. I came back knowing what was outside. You could say I came to the realization we are on the brink of losing something that is so special for us.”

People who know of the country generally have positive feelings. “Bhutan around the world is known as the ‘happy country,'” Dorji explained.  “Usually when I introduce myself to someone, I say. ‘I’m Bhutanese.’  The next thing question will always be: “You must be very happy.” 

That can prevent people from seeing the reality of Bhutan today. Dorji explained, “It’s nice to be known as the happy country, but then the fact of the reality is Bhutan is a third-world country. We have limited resources. Because of that, there are real problems. We have thousands and thousands of people leaving Bhutan, especially the youth in search of, ironically, happiness elsewhere. The second thing is we have hundreds of teachers who have become disillusioned with their jobs, what they’re trying to do. Hundreds of teachers, they are quitting their jobs.”

Dorji explained, “When you look into Bhutan, you will realize the teacher category is losing the most number of people, quitting every year.” And that’s the reason, Dorji made this film. “‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ is really a reflection of what I see happening in Bhutan right now. I feel that filmmakers, but on top of that even artists and storytellers, we have a very important responsibility. I think our creations, the stories that we tell, should and must reflect the world that we live in right now. With this movie, that was my intention, to make something that was reflecting what was going on in Bhutan right now.

“With third-world countries like Bhutan, there’s this trend. We are in such a rush to become developed. We are in such a rush to achieve materialistic, worldly gain, that in that pursuit, in our rush of that pursuit, a lot of times we are forgetting the traditions, the wisdoms that define us as a people, the wisdoms and traditions of our forefathers. With ‘Lunana,’ I try to touch upon that with everything that the teacher learns in Lunana.”

While the film itself is fiction, Dorji explained, “Every aspect of the film is based on true stories, true accounts, the stories of real-life teachers that people shared with me.” To explain his inspiration and motivations, Dorji explained that in Bhutan when someone asks you to tell them a story, the literal translation is “please untie a knot for me.” There’s a concept of liberating stories in his culture. 

“I actually wanted to make this film for quite a while. It was just planning and collecting stories. I met a teacher and I realized he had worked in the highlands so I asked him how was it living in the highlands. He said, ‘It was so difficult because there are no trees for wood to make fire with so I had to climb mountains to collect yak dung. So finally I got so tired I tied a yak in the classroom.’  I was like, wow! A yak in the classroom! How amazing that would be visually to capture. Elements like that、 every time I met somebody, I heard something and I would write it down. This story is really a collection of many, many stories that I had the honor of collecting over the past few years that I combined it into one story.” 

Yet ultimately the story is personal. Dorji explained, ” What the protagonist goes through is what I went through. I had a very, very unique upbringing compared to most Bhutanese. I grew up outside of Bhutan. So for a lot of Bhutanese, it is like what we show in the movie, they are living in the mountains, and they are always dreaming what it is like to be beyond the mountains. What is the world like beyond the snow-capped mountains.”

Yet those snow-capped mountains contain something important. Dorji said, a yak herder “told me the melting ice and snow is actually the home of the snow lions. When the snow and ice disappears, then the snow lion will disappear. The snow lion is actually very symbolic because the snow lions don’t exist in real life. It’s a white lion with a blue mane. In Bhutanese culture, the snow lion actually represents the heart of enlightenment, Buddhahood, Someone who is majestic, courageous, fearless. What the yak herder, who has no idea what global warming is, is actually saying is, because of overconsumption, because of global warming, the heart of enlightenment is disappearing from our world. There’s actually so much wisdom in that.”

Dorji was a photographer before he was a filmmaker. Starting when he lived in India, he was heavily influenced by Raghunath Rai Chowdhry, known as Raghu Rai. Rai (December 18, 1942) is an Indian photographer and photojournalist who was a  protégé of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). Dorji came to filmmaking through the Tibetan/Bhutanese lama (and filmmaker Khyentse Norbu (born 18 June 1961) whom he met in 2006.  Still, Dorji said, “More than a photographer, more than a filmmaker, I’ve always wanted to be a storyTeller. That is why I wanted to capture things, why I wanted to document things. Photography was the first medium through which I could tell stories but I was drawn to the magic of creating movies, to create these illusions, create these characters, create these story lines.” 

You can clearly see Dorji’s vision and photographer’s eye in “Lunana.” “I worked very closely with the cinematographer Jigme Tenzing,” Dorji recalled. “The two of us, we had a very clear picture of how we wanted to shoot this movie. I don’t like cameras that move a lot. I don’t like cameras that follow the characters. I like the camera to be still static. I like the story to open up and develop organically. If you notice in the movie, most of the scenes are static. We had this plan: We wanted to audience to really feel what the protagonist was feeling.

“In the beginning of the film, when he is antsy, when he is restless, when he wants to go to Australia, when he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, the shots are very tight and it’s handheld. The shots are very static, but it’s handheld. You can almost feel the restlessness in him. But as he discovers Lunana, as he discovers, what he wants to do,  we go very wide. We wanted the audience to be immersed in that story.” That’s when the camera was stabilized. Dorji also notes that the movies starts and ends with a dolly shot to draw the audience in. 

The entire film was shot with one camera. In Lunana, there was no electricity, so they used solar power. Without electricity that meant the lighting relied heavily on bouncing and fills. 

When asked what films inspire him, Dorji has some surprising answers: Hirokazu Kore-era (是枝 裕和) and Quentin Tarantino. From Tarantino, Dorji’s favorites were the Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and the 2015 “The Hateful Eight.” Dorji especially liked Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner “Like Father, Like Son” as well as the Palme’ D’Or winning “Shoplifters.” Of Kore-era, Dorji liked that the stories were simple and drew from reality.  Dorji recalled an interview in which Kore-era spoke about “Shoplifters” in which he revealed that the whole film sprang from a family scene at the beachside.  “What Kore-era was saying was that was the first scene that he shot of the movie. He said he didn’t even have a script then. He just had a rough idea and he took the actors to the seaside and he made the actors play around on the beach. Once he shot that, then he wrote the screenplay. I was amazed: How can you create a masterpiece like that from just one scene?”

This week, Dorji is more likely wondering how a guy with one camera, no major studio behind him and up until recently, without an agent, made it into the Oscars, attending functions with Denzel Washington, Jessica Chastain and Steven Spielberg. He’s a man representing a country that hadn’t submitted a film in over two decades and that resulted in a scramble that delayed his official submission by a year. “You could say it is a story of perseverance.” With this momentous and amazing debut, one can only hope that Dorji continues to tell stories. Quoting Buddha, Dorji said, “We create illusions to show people the truth.” And in “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” the shown the world the majestic truth of his happy country and even a possible path to happiness. 

The 94th Academy Awards ceremony will be helped at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, on 27 March 2022. “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is up against Japan’s “Drive My Car,” Denmark’s “Flee,” Italy’s “The Hand of God” and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World.” “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” is currently streaming on YouTube, Apple TV, Vudu and Amazon Prime Video. 

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