- Shot on location in one of the most remote human settlements in the world, it made history by being Bhutan’s first film in 23 years to get an Oscar nod.
Bhutanese filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji had to overcome many obstacles to make his feature film “Luana: A Yak in the Classroom.” It was shot on location in one of the most remote human settlements in the world and the production had to rely entirely on solar batteries. Most of the actors are local yak herders who have never seen the world beyond their village. Earlier this month, it made history by being Bhutan’s first film in 23 years to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.
“It was so improbable that I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish,” Dorji, 38, told media outlets after the Feb. 8 nomination. “Somehow we now find ourselves nominated for an Oscar,” he added. “When I found out, it was so unbelievable that I kept telling my friends, ‘What if I wake up tomorrow and I realize all this was a dream?’’ He hoped that the film would “continue to touch peoples’ hearts, especially during these difficult times.”
Dorji also wrote the script and co-produced the film with Steven Xiang, Stephane Lai and Jia Honglin. He is from a rural part of Bhutan that is east of Lunana.
When he submitted the film for the Oscar nomination consideration, Bhutan wasn’t even an option on the Academy website, he told Film Companion. Neither was there a mention of the country’s language — Dzongkha — in the language drop-down list. So he had to write to the Academy, twice, once for adding his country, and then again for the addition of his language. “It was such a challenging, long process and without a distributor or PR or lobbying, I really had no hope,” Dorji told Film Companion. “I was just happy I was able to carve out a place for Bhutan in the Academy so future Bhutanese filmmakers can build upon that.”
The film tells the story of a young teacher from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, who is assigned to work at a remote mountain school against his will. He dreams of quitting his government job, emigrating to Australia and pursuing a career as a singer. But the teacher, Ugyen, is fascinated by the people he meets in Lunana — particularly, 9-year-old Pem Zam, a radiant student with difficult home life. As the months go by, he begins to take his job more seriously.
Dorji told The Indian Express that he made a teacher the protagonist after reading news reports about Bhutanese educators quitting their jobs. He saw that as a symbol of discontent in a poor, isolated country where globalization has caused profound social changes. He picked the Lunana Valley as the film’s setting because it presented a dramatic contrast with a “well-lit” foreign city, he told the Express. “The area is isolated even by the standards of this remote Himalayan kingdom,” he said. In Dzongkha, lunana means “dark valley.”
“Luana: A Yak in the Classroom” premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in 2019 and won the audience award at last year’s Palm Springs Film Festival. It had been submitted for the 2021Oscar race by the Bhutanese government’s Ministry of Information and Communications but the entry was considered ineligible by the Academy because Bhutan did not have a proper official committee and hasn’t submitted a film in 23 years. In 1999, “The Cup,” a film that was written and directed by Dorji’s teacher Khyentse Norbu was the first film from Bhutan to be sent to the Oscars.
Growing up, Dorji lived in India and attended the Kodaikanal International School. After moving to Bhutan, he went to Yangchenphug Higher Secondary School back in Thimphu. He then came to the U.S. and graduated in 2007 with a degree in Government and International Relations from Lawrence University, a liberal arts college in Appleton, Wisconsin. He later studied Buddhist Philosophy at the Sarah Buddhist Institute in 2009.
A celebrated photographer, Dorji has contributed to publications such as VICE, Esquire, and Life, and has authored three photography essay books. He met Norbu in 2006 and discovered filmmaking through working with him, first as director’s assistant on “Vara: A Blessing” in 2013, and then as producer of “Hema Hema” in 2016. (
He married Taiwanese actress and producer Fanyun “Stephanie” Lai in 2009. The couple has two kids. The family split their time between Taiwan, Bhutan, and India.
Oscar or not, it is indeed a great journey for a film made on a $300,000 budget. Now it’s being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and marketed by a public relations agency with offices in New York and Beverly Hills.