Pawo Choyning Dorji

(1/4) Oscar Nomination

“I didn’t submit Lunana to the Oscars for a nomination, but rather to have Bhutan represented on a global stage. Many said we wouldn’t even pass the first round—we didn’t have the required publicist or distributor in North America. The international film race is also a country race so there are also big rich governments financially backing their films. How could we compete against such films?

 When we submitted, the Academy website didn’t even have ‘Bhutan’ in their list of countries nor did they have ‘Dzongkha’ in their list of languages. They had to update their entire website to accommodate our submission. I was content with Bhutan just being 1 of 92 countries represented, but to my amazement, the Academy voters somehow found us worthy of the shortlist. Following the shortlisting, many Bhutanese told me they were so sure of our nomination. They said they were making prayers and aspirations, but I still thought it would be impossible. Experts ranked us last among the 15 shortlisted. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche told me that a nomination would be so good for Bhutan and that even if it seemed impossible, we should give it everything we could because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so even if we were knocked out, we should leave knowing we tried our very best. 

 We put in everything we could into the Oscar campaign for the month leading up to the crucial vote. I was more exhausted and stressed during that time than when shooting the film in Lunana! Believing we wouldn’t get a nomination, I didn’t dare share with family and friends the announcement details. However, minutes before the news, I realised so many Bhutanese around the world were watching live. I was so worried that I would be disappointing so many Bhutanese, especially during the lockdown. When our nomination was announced, I actually thought it was a mistake, and waited for them to correct it. 

 In Bhutan, we believe in the power of moenlams. Our nomination was realised because of the power of collective aspirations. I’m happy this has allowed us to showcase and celebrate Bhutan’s culture and spiritual traditions on a global stage. This isn’t about Lunana the movie, this is about Bhutan.” 

(2/4) Growing up and meeting Rinpoche

“Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche was always in my life. When I was 9, Rinpoche asked me what I wanted to do with my life and if I wanted to work for him when I grew up. I didn’t think too much about it and ‘yes, sure’. He told me with a smile ‘Be careful, if you say it, then it will happen’.  I eventually forgot about our conversation and became engrossed in pursuing what I wanted to do with my life, studying Political Science in college to become a diplomat like my father. 

 15 years later, I received an email from Rinpoche that only said ‘come to Bir’. What I had said was coming true! I refused to pack up and move to a remote village in India. My mother told me to try out this special opportunity, even bribing me with my first DSLR camera! I agreed to go for 2 months, not a day more. 

 I took an overnight bus from Delhi to Bir to join Rinpoche, but he didn’t say anything for weeks. I felt like I gave up everything and came to Bir for nothing. Rinpoche finally sent me to study Buddhism and Tibetan in Dharamsala. It was tough and really lonely, but I soon realized the preciousness of studying Buddhadharma. I also realized how fortunate I was to spend time and learn from an enlightened master like Rinpoche. Shantideva once said; ‘Just as a flash of lightning on a dark, cloudy night, for an instant brightly illuminates all.’ Time with Rinpoche was that flash of lightning illuminating my life. When two months had passed, in 2006, he asked if I was going to go back to ‘my life’. I told him that if he was willing to have me, I wanted to stay in Bir and dedicate my life to serving him. 

 I was Rinpoche’s assistant on his films. When we worked on Vara in Sri Lanka, I told him filmmaking was tiring and stressful, and I never ever wanted to make a film. He just laughed, and after a few years I ended up working on Hema Hema as a Producer and eventually ended up making Lunana. I never went to film school or studied film professionally, so whatever little I know of filmmaking has been because of serving Rinpoche.”

 

 

 

 

(3/4) Becoming a filmmaker

“Around 2014, Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen commanded me to travel around Bhutan to take photos for a cookbook for the Queen’s project. I got to travel to the remote parts of Bumthang or Zhemgang, villages in Wangdue and Phobjikha, and see the Southern traditions and culture. I even went to Laya and Gasa, and I realised how much beauty there is in our Bhutanese traditions. I expressed gratitude to Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen for giving me this opportunity to learn more about my culture. The beautiful people I met and their stories really inspired me, and it was at that moment that I wanted to collect all the stories of Bhutan and make them into one story that could tell the story of Bhutan in this day and age. That’s where the idea for Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was born. 

 When Hema Hema was banned, I felt so sad that many people did not realise the global reach that film has as a medium to share our culture. I thought, let’s try to make a film that is a celebration of Bhutan. Hopefully, this film will do well, and people will realise what films can really do. The reason why Bhutanese youth lip-sync to BTS, dance to Blackpink, and even speak Korean despite never stepping foot outside Bhutan, is all because of the influence of media on culture. Now because of Lunana, there are Muslims in Egypt trying to sing Yak Labi Lhadar, while Jews in Israel are trying to sing Rangsem. That is the power of art and creativity.  

 I never thought I would become a filmmaker, and I really don’t see myself as a filmmaker. I have too much respect for the art of filmmaking, and I am still learning to be one. I learned so much working on Vara, Hema Hema, and now Lunana, and I am still learning from the people I get to work with. I always say I am a storyteller who uses film to tell stories. Stories are not just for entertainment, but also have a higher purpose. In Bumthap, when we say ‘tell me a story’ we say, ‘rung ma thay shik gay’ which translates to ‘please untie a knot for me.’ The telling of stories has a higher purpose in Bhutanese culture, it has a purpose of ‘untying, freeing, liberating’, and I see myself as someone who tries to untie knots.

 

 

(4/4)Making Lunana

“Lunana is like a rainbow, beautiful but impermanent. Rainbows require many conditions, and I am only one raindrop in this beautiful rainbow. The crew, cast, and people of Lunana. The teachers that inspired me to write this story and the mules that made it possible. Inspirational heroes like Sir Dechen Tshering, who put a yak in his classroom. Sir Namgay, who has taught in Lunana for 10 years. Sir Gyem Dorji and Madam Gyem, and films like Sir Dorji Wangchuk’s ‘School Among Glaciers’, are all raindrops and rays of light in this rainbow. 

 When I first proposed making a feature film in Lunana, many people said it was impossible. At that moment, I read one of His Majesty’s speeches. He said that it is not a question of being able or not being able to do it. It’s a question of doing it or not doing it. There is so much wisdom in that. My crew and I took the risk, not even knowing if our cameras would work in Lunana. It was His Majesty’s words that inspired us to just do it. 

 Lunana is now an Oscar-nominated film released globally in various languages. The world is learning about Bhutan through Lunana, and Bhutanese are also celebrating it globally. However, making Lunana was challenging, and we faced many obstacles. This is not widely known, but the rainbow that is Lunana almost did not happen. 

 Just 5 days before production, we almost canceled the entire film because of obstacles. I have not shared this before out of respect for His Majesty, but given Lunana’s global journey, people should know that it only exists because His Majesty stepped in and made sure our shoot happened. It was not just his inspiration, he made it possible for us to actually make this film. If it wasn’t for His Majesty, there would be no ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’.

 This small film was made by an all-Bhutanese cast and crew, shooting with solar power. I hope the journey from the world’s remotest classroom to the Oscars inspires a new generation of Bhutanese storytellers. I hope that future Bhutanese storytellers will see this as an example to chase your dreams and that you can accomplish even more than what Lunana has accomplished. This is proof that nothing is impossible.”

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