When their new teacher writes on the board ‘C for Car’, the children do not recognise the word. “Have you never seen a car before?” the young teacher asks. No, they reply. So the teacher changes it to ‘Cow’, a word they know – “We get milk from cow," says a child.
The teacher – the lead character in this Bhutanese movie – has trekked for eight days to reach the school, believed to be one of the world’s most remote ones, located on top of the Himalayan mountains. The character was inspired by a real story that the film’s writer and director Pawo Choyning Dorji learnt about. Pawo’s film Lunanana – A Yak in the Classroom is part of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), 2019.
"In Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, I wanted to create a world that is at the opposite end of this spectrum, a world so different from the cosmopolitan cities like Sydney and New York, and that is the glacial village of Lunana. A world that is considered so remote and backward even by the Bhutanese. A world that to this day does not have electricity and telephone network. So remote and backward that the word ‘Lunana’ itself translates as the ‘dark valley’. I wanted to explore if we could find ‘happiness’ in this world, that is shunned and ignored by many. After all Bhutan’s definition of happiness is built on our spiritual foundations of contentness and acceptance which translates to happiness being the path and not the ultimate destination," Pawo tells TNM.
Due to the absence of electricity and network connections, the production of the film was fully dependent on solar energy.
The teacher in Pawo’s film, Ugyen, is a young man in Bhutan’s Thimpu, who hopes to go to Australia and become a singer. But when he is found shirking his duties as a teacher, his superiors send him to the Lunana school as punishment. You see Ugyen’s really slow transformation in the film, from a preoccupied man, indifferent to the world around him, to a most concerned teacher, worried about his pupils.
Children cast in the film are from Lunana
Ugyen is hooked to his music player when he first arrives, and before the long trek to Lunana begins in the company of two men. He complains when the climb upward goes on for hours and looks unhappy when his gadgets, unpowered due to the lack of electricity, die one after the other. As soon as he reaches Lunana, where the population is a meager 56, a tired Ugyen confesses to the village head ‘Asha’ that he wants to go back home.
The very next day he is woken up by a chirpy nine-year-old called Pem Zam who says she is the class captain and could the teacher come to the class, it is already 9 am.
"I think it’s also important to note that all our actors are first time actors, all our actors in Lunana are highlanders many of whom had never seen the outside world. So they had never seen a movie, and had never seen cameras before. We wished to capture that purity and rawness, for example that scene where the kids brush their teeth... it was the actually the very first time they were tasting toothpaste! To make it easier for the locals to act, I wrote the script so that the locals weren’t really acting but actually living their own lives. For example, little Pem Zam's character was written based on her own life. She comes from a broken family, has an alcoholic father (like the character)," says Pawo.
The teachers who visit them in spring from somewhere far are the only hope for the children of Lunana to get an education. In the film, Ugyen learns to listen to the natural sounds and the singing of the villagers around him when his music player is dead. The yak-herders all sing well, says Michen, one of the villagers who'd accompanied Ugyen in his journey. The village is full of yaks, and the bond between a yak and its herder is so strong, says a young woman called Saldon, who sings for the world, sitting on top of a hill.
Although parts of it feel a little cinematic, you appreciate the reality of the situation. Quite a few in the cast, like Pem Zam, have never known a world outside their village. When winter comes, the paths are blocked and the village is covered in snow.
"What does it mean to be happy? We pride ourselves in being the happiest country in the world, there are even slogans like ‘Bhutan… Happiness in a place’, but the ironic thing is there are so many Bhutanese who seem to leave Bhutan, often leaving for places like Australia to search for their own definition of ‘happiness’. That definition of happiness seems to be directly connected with modernisation and materialism, where the western contemporary world becomes the ultimate destination, a world that lures all with their glittering lights and worldly values," adds Pawo.
Pawo Choyning Dorji
In the film, Ugyen is surprised by the respect the villagers give him. “Because a teacher touches your future,” they say. As the days go by, Ugyen forgets the displeasure he first felt and wakes up with a smile on his face, finding ways to get teaching materials for his students. Soon a blackboard is made. Charts of animals are brought. Notebooks (papers are precious few in the village) are supplied. Ugyen also gets his guitar and begins to sing rhymes for the kids, while Saldon presents him a yak for the classroom (hence the title).
It is all very sweet and you can sense the elements of a mainstream film. But the emotions never go overboard, there is no predictable ending or a musical reunion. There is just the taste of a moving film that has overcome many hurdles.