An Oscar nominee for Best International Feature, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom marks a first for the country of Bhutan, which has only ever submitted two films for consideration (and actually entered Lunana two years in a row following its earlier disqualification on a technicality). Filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji and star Sherab Dorji joined us for Contenders Film: The Nominees to discuss the making of the movie, a charming story of a teacher who is reluctantly transferred to a remote village and ends up learning quite a bit throughout his journey.
On nominations day, the director told me he felt like it had been a dream, and “it still feels very surreal,” he said, noting that when Lunana was accepted for consideration, “I think we were ranked as one of the least likely films to make the shortlist. We made the shortlist somehow and after we made the shortlist we were again ranked as the least likely to make the nomination. And somehow we have ended up here. More than anything I’m enjoying this journey that lets us share our country and our culture with the rest of the world and that’s what we are in it for.”
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This is Sherab Dorji’s first time acting, and he went headfirst into a situation that saw him share the screen with both children and animals. So, how did he handle that? “The kids weren’t very difficult. But the yak, he gave me quite a powerful kick to my pelvis — so that was a memorable moment.”
Pawo Choyning Dorji says he was surprised by the performances he was able to elicit from the cast of all first-timers. “The one thing that the Bhutanese films always suffer from is a strong performance from the cast,” he said. “We do have beautiful stories that come out of Bhutan, but we just don’t have the professionally trained actors to be able to deliver. So actually, a lot of times when me and fellow directors write our scripts, we are always thinking at the back of our mind, where will we find these Bhutanese actors who can deliver these lines and perform these scenes? I think I really lucked out, I was so fortunate” to find everyone.
One thing that helped was being in pre-production for nearly a year-and-a-half, so the actors had “ample time to get into the role and be coached.”
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Lunana is very remote and the crew was shooting with solar power. On that, the director comments, “I always told my crew members if our film fails and it totally is a flop, we can take it to heart that we made a film that is carbon negative.”
Currently still hampered by the pandemic, the filmmakers are planning to fulfill a promise and screen the movie for the kids and the titular village, “so that their first cinematic experience will be their own story.”
Check out the panel video above.
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