Film Review: ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’

By: 
John Thomas

The lure of the warm sandy beaches of Australia is too much for Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Tjorji) to resist any longer, he has to leave Thimphu, Bhutan and move there. Before applying for a visa he must consult with his boss. Sitting across from her at her desk, he humbly admits he’s not meant to be a teacher but a singer.

She firmly reminds him that he has a five-year contract to serve the government and a year remains. He can’t leave, but he can move to another school to complete his obligation. She chooses a school in the mountain village of Lunana, the most remote school in Bhutan – possibly in the world.

Ugyen shrinks in horror at the thought of spending a year in the most distant settlement in the country. He stammers that his body can’t tolerate high altitudes, thus making him unfit for the assignment, and besides, Lunana is an eight-day hike away. She also mentions his contract could be shortened as Lunana shuts down in winter; he would leave before then.

His grandmother and a few friends see him off at the bus stop. At the end of the bus ride he’s met by Michen (Ugyen Norbu), sent by the village to welcome and escort him to the school.

On the eighth day, Michen announces to the dog-tired Ugyen, “It’s not too much farther uphill and we will reach level land.” “But you’ve said that three times already and the trail is still too steep,” Ugyen replies. “At the beginning, if I told you the trail is like this all the way you wouldn’t have come, you need hope,” is the reply.

When they reach to the summit, offerings are made, prayers said and a rock is placed on a pile of others with the wish for an eventual return. Ugyen doesn’t bother, he’s more concerned with the dead battery in his mobile phone.

All the villagers turn out to welcome their new teacher. He’s escorted to his classroom and the living space next door. Both rooms are dusty, sparsely furnished and lacking amenities. He collapses from exhaustion on the floor-mat and falls into a deep sleep.

A quiet voice calls to him the next morning. It is the class chief, who has come to remind him that class began 30 minutes ago. With no teaching plan or supplies, he improvises. After introducing one another, class is dismissed – Ugyen needs to prepare.

Wandering into the peaceful landscape to collect Yak dung to start fires in the stove, he hears a gentle voice, coming from a woman singing to the Yaks.

She explains that all Yak herders sing to their flock and if he is gathering dung for his stove, he should collect it when it is dry, not fresh. Days later she brings Norbu, an elderly Yak, to Ugyen’s classroom so he won’t have to go outside to gather dung. The amount Norbu produces depends on how much food he’s given and, she cautions, he has to live inside at night.

Ugyen asks friends in Thimphu to send him school supplies. He has a chalkboard and chalk made by the villagers – his classroom situation is improving as is his enthusiasm for teaching.

When the short school year is over it’s time for Ugyen to leave for Thimphu. Michen is ready to escort him on the eight-day hike to the bus stop. This time when they reach the pass with the stack of stones, Ugyen makes an offering, says a prayer and leaves a stone on the pile – he’s left his mobile phone behind.

This is a “should See” production, based on the author’s recent visit to Bhutan as it beautifully depicts the country, its scenery, the population and its values. GNH is a paramount goal in Bhutan (Gross National Happiness).

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, directed by Pawo Choy Dorji (a debut film) and runs 109 minutes.

johan@beachomber.news

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