In Thomas Balmès’ docu-fiction hybrid Sing Me a Song (2019), a young Buddhist monk-in-training in rural Bhutan is obsessed with his smartphone and decides to travel to Thimphu to meet a singer that he has discovered on WeChat. At the centre of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019), the first Bhutanese film to be nominated for the Oscar award for Best International Feature Film, there is a young man obsessed with gadgets too, but he is forced to make the reverse journey.

Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is an orphaned middle-class public-school teacher in Thimphu who dislikes his job. He wants to emigrate to Australia and become a singer, a fact that upsets his grandmother (Tsheri Zom) and surprises his friends. At the office of the education secretary, he gets a scolding for his lack of motivation and receives a punishment posting to the mountainous village of Lunana, which shelters “the remotest school in the world.” (That the ministry posts their worst teacher to their neediest school is more telling.) “I can’t do this, I have an altitude problem,” he demurs. “You don’t have an altitude problem, you have an attitude problem,” the secretary hits back.

With his Australian visa still under process and his contract with the ministry still active, Ugyen is compelled to leave for Lunana, a location five kilometres above sea level and only accessible after eight days of arduous trekking. Over the course of the trip, on-screen texts alert us to the increasing altitude and decreasing population. Ugyen begins in denial, disregarding the villagers who have come to receive him, burying his head instead in his smartphone and iPod. He shuts himself off from the captivating sights and sounds of the landscape, its beliefs and mores, until the batteries run out, forcing him to engage with his surroundings. He comes to notice the harshness of life in the highlands, its grinding poverty and its changing climate.

Way before he reaches his destination, Ugyen is welcomed by the entire population of Lunana. The head of the village Asha Jinpa (Kunzang Wangdi), who becomes something of a father figure to Ugyen, accompanies him to his residence. There is no electricity, the toilet is a hole in the floor, and the windows are covered with paper. The school, too, is poorly equipped. There is no blackboard, paper is scarce as money, the desks covered in dust; it’s that the school shuts down in winter, when the designated teacher has to leave Lunana before the village is snowed in. Ugyen is understandably vexed and tells Asha that he wants to leave at the earliest opportunity.

Right off the bat then, we know the familiar direction that the film will take. A city brat, Ugyen will be disabused of his prejudices and will learn to appreciate life in the highlands, thanks to noble villagers. Sure enough, as he begins to reluctantly teach the children of Lunana and those of the neighbouring villages, Ugyen comes to perceive the value that his teaching holds for them. His iPod is relegated to a corner of the house and his beloved Australia brochure turns into a scribble pad for song lyrics.

The narrative simplicity and emotional clarity of Lunana should not, however, occlude its subtler qualities. There is very little musical score in the film, with most of the songs that we hear sung by the characters themselves. This spareness, like the acapella songs of the herders, serves to deepen the viewing experience rather than supplant it. The yak that the singing herdswoman Saldon (Keldon Lhamo Gurung) ties in Ugyen’s classroom has a symbolic function, but it isn’t rubbed in our faces.

Likewise, the actors, a mix of professionals and villagers alike, don’t go beyond a given range. Their reactions are not amped up for effect. Sherab Dorji’s Ugyen is introduced as a self-absorbed, indolent fellow, but the performance and the writing don’t allow this to devolve into petulance. Nor do they distort the character to effect a transformation in him. There is certainly an evolution to Ugyen, but it isn’t a Damascene conversion that he is put through.

Indeed, the staying power of Lunana (and the gut punch it delivers at the end) might have to do with the fact that it doesn’t resolve the tensions it sets up. There are no miracles in the film. Ugyen decides to stay back in the village not because he changes, but because he is contractually obliged. We don’t know what happens to his girlfriend in Thimphu, and his attraction to Saldon isn’t brought to a completion either. A dissolve late in the film from the mountains of Lunana to the Bondi beach in Sydney is quite unsettling in this respect.

The importance that Bhutan accords to its citizens’ happiness is rightly renowned — Ugyen sports a T-shirt that promotes Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index — but the film raises the question of what that happiness consists of. Ugyen’s aspirations would have him move to Australia to pursue a career in singing, but his work as a teacher effects a positive change in many more lives. In that sense, his move from Thimphu to Lunana foreshadows his planned move to Australia, with the difference that it is his personal wishes that are snuffed out here rather than those of the people around him. It is the classic conflict of modernity, one between the desire of an individual and the needs of his community. Flee gives it a specific form by refracting it through Bhutan’s education policy.

Curiously, the anxiety that Ugyen’s impending emigration produces is framed firstly as a matter of abandoning national responsibility rather than as an error in his judgment of his inner needs. Ugyen’s grandmother, who vanishes from the film early, is worried less about his posting to Lunana than about his decision to resign from a government job. In the village, wide-eyed children speak of their ambition to serve the king. They sing the national anthem every day, even if they don’t know of a world beyond the mountains. The faith that the villagers in the film repose on the power of education is thoroughly moving.

Lunana’s journey to Oscar nomination is a story of its own: made in 2019, it was disqualified from submission because Bhutan did not have an Oscar committee to send films through. When it was resubmitted through a newly formed committee the following year, the Academy had to add Bhutan to the list of countries in their submission portal. Over the past two years, the film has won numerous awards at festivals and found distribution in several countries.

More than its commercial power or aesthetic merit, however, Lunana must first be seen as a gift. To bring back images, to tell stories of people from a place without electricity, with very little access, is a logistical marvel, but a film from underrepresented cultures also opens us up to lives and landscapes that we might not have otherwise known. Without Lunana, we may not have known of Pem Zam, the heart-breaking school captain who plays herself in the film, and that would have been a loss.


[First published at News9]