When the films nominated in the category of Best International Film were announced at the last Oscars, many had to take out the world map to locate Bhutan. A small country in South Asia, in the middle of the Himalayas, and with just 800,000 inhabitants, had achieved a historic nomination that put them in the spotlight. It was the first time that the country had achieved it and the first time in 23 years that they could afford to send a film to the pre-selection, since in this category each country chooses its candidate and it is the Academy that chooses among all the selected ones.
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YES Bhutan is an unknown country for the vast majority, Lunana, the town where it takes place Lunana, a yak at school, the film directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji, is unknown. It looks like a Macondo created by the imagination of this Vice and Esquire photographer who has debuted with a touching story of a teacher who avoids his responsibilities by planning to flee the country, but who ends up being sent by his bosses to the most remote school in Bhutan, in Lunana village. A place with no electricity, no heating and only a blackboard. A film with a good heart that makes you fall in love with its simplicity.
Pawo Choyning Dorji was born there, and it shows that his gaze is not that of a tourist nor does he have the ‘white savior’ complex that permeates many fictions. Choyning Dorji stresses over and over again how lucky he feels to have been able to shoot a film in a country where “the industry is very small.” “Bhutan is a very poor country. We are lucky if we can shoot a movie every five or six years. Not many films have been made in Bhutan, so when I decided to make this film, it was clear to me that I wanted to tell a story about what this country is like at this particular moment,” he says.
With the film he also wants to break the prejudices about the place. “When I tell someone that I am from Bhutan, usually the next thing they tell me is that I must be very happy. They have this conception that we are a happy country there, that it is the last Shangri-La. Bhutan is a very beautiful country, it is special, but we also have many problems. For example, we are a country whose culture and way of life have been protected for almost a century and suddenly it has been thrown open. As we modernize, our culture, values and traditions are being forgotten in our quest for modernization. I have tried to show that in the film. We are also a country with a large rural exodus because we are poor. Every month, thousands upon thousands of people leave Bhutan for places like Australia. So… are we really happy? How can we say that we are when so many young people leave the country? Why do they leave? Well, because they are not happy, ”he explains.
His idea was to create a time capsule in the form of a film. He never thought of reaching Hollywood but capturing his country, but that also caused him an internal conflict, who was he to expose a place that he had been so protected? “I kept wondering what right I had to introduce all these people to the outside world, to steal their stories and share them with outsiders. While I was shooting, I was wondering if I was doing the right thing, but on the last day of shooting, when I was leaving Lunana, several people from the Government of Bhutan came and when we asked them what they were doing there they told us that they were coming to install 3G towers, internet towers. I felt sad, because yes, life will improve and everything will be much easier for the people of Lunana, but their innocence will be lost”, he says and is glad to have captured that place before “it is full of videos of people dancing on Tik Tok.”
In the rest of the world you grow up watching television. Here, until 2007 the king did not allow the entrance of television. We were the last country to have internet
Pawo Choyning Dorji
— Film director
Bhutan has never participated in the Olympic Games or in a sporting competition at the international level, “we have never been mentioned anywhere in the world” until the Oscars came. The country was filled with “pride and happiness”. For the director it has also brought something very important, references: “I think it has inspired a generation of directors from Bhutan who now say, if this film about Lunana can travel from a remote school to Hollywood we can also make our film, and that It is what we directors have to try, to inspire other generations”.
Happiness at the nomination was mixed, as Bhutan’s written policies against COVID still stand. They have the same protocol as in China, “one case, one lockdown.” “Anyone who came to Bhutan had to quarantine for 21 days and when they announced the nomination we were confined. People were very down and suddenly the news of the Oscars came and everyone’s spirits were lifted. The people from the villages, from Lunana, the monks from the monasteries, everyone was so happy… it was very exciting to see, and as someone who was born in Bhutan I felt very proud to see my country on an international stage.” His idea is to become someone like Ang Lee, capable of continuing to tell stories faithful to his culture but also of filming The life of Pi.
At the moment he doesn’t dare, and his second film will also be in Bhutan. He will talk about this moment of opening of the country after years of isolation. “In the rest of the world you grow up watching television. Here, until 2007 the king did not allow the entrance of television. We were the last country to have it. We were the last country to have internet. So imagine the impact of that opening up and suddenly having television and the internet.” A film that he is already preparing and that will ensure that his country does not go back five years without shooting a film.