Arts & Entertainment

First Oscar nomination shines spotlight on Bhutan’s fledgling cinema

By Hugo Barcia

New Delhi, Mar 1 (EFE).- Director Pawo Choyning is yet to get over his amazement at the astonishing success of his debut film “Lunana: A Yak in Classroom” that offers a glimpse into life at a far-flung Bhutanese village and has become the first movie from the Himalayan country to be nominated for the Academy Awards.

“We are a very, very small film that was made in the world’s most remote classroom. We had so many logistical challenges that we almost felt like we wouldn’t be able to complete this film,” the 38-year-old director, whose film is competing in the Best International Feature category, told EFE.

“Being nominated for the Oscars is the last thing we expected. But, you know, magical things happen.”

The nomination was so out of the blue that Chonying, with a laugh, confessed he was afraid it were a repeat of the “La La Land” moment of 2017, when the film was announced to have won the Oscar for Best Feature, only to be retracted as a mistake.

Filmed in 2019, the “Lunana…” tells the story of an unmotivated teacher in Bhutanese capital Thimphu, who is sent on a punishment posting to the country’s remotest school – at the height of 4,800 meters in the tiny village of Lunana – thus putting paid to his dreams of becoming a singer and moving to Australia.

There the protagonist gets exposed to a contrasting lifestyle, with the director aiming to offer “a glimpse into our culture, a way of life that has never been seen before.”

The shoot was a challenging process, as Lunana can only be reached after an eight-day trek from the nearest town, and does not have electricity.

The 35-member team had to carry equipment on top of around 75 donkeys, and used solar energy to charge batteries.

“If you talk to a person in Bhutan and say Lunana, it is almost like telling him to go to the moon,” Choyning said.

“Lunana…” is the second film from the Himalayan nation – inhabited by around 770,000 people and sandwiched between China and India – to be submitted to the Oscars. But the first to receive a nomination.

In 1999, “The Cup” became the first Bhutanese submission to the Academy Awards and despite failing to secure a nomination it led to Chonying beginning to dream of making movies.

The debutant director said the Oscar application process was unclear as so much time had passed between the two submissions. The film was rejected in 2020 because Bhutan’s selection committee was declared as “no longer valid.”

Therefore, the film accepted as an entry the following year was celebrated as a great victory even as the country struggled with the pandemic, and helped generate interest in cinema.

Lack of resources and domestic demand are the big challenges for Bhutan’s cinema industry, with theaters being almost non-existent or in a poor shape.

The industry was established in 1990s, and around 30 films were being produced annually until 2010, a government report showed.

Choyning said the sector had grown since then, mainly driven by commercial films while independent “art films” were produced once in four-five years.

These limitations are visible in “Lunana…,” a “very simple” film with a budget of some $300,000 according to the director.

The budget is peanuts compared to some of the films competing in the same section for the upcoming Oscars ceremony, to be held in Los Angeles on Mar. 27.

“There’s a part of me that gets so scared, because all that is left to do is fall down,” said Choyning. EFE

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