Pawo Choyning Dorji: “Despite the clichés, Bhutan is not the land of happiness” | Culture

Is Bhutan the happiest country in the world, as local polls that measure the National Happiness Index claim? “Well, we have a lot of problems, despite these subjects, it’s not the country of happiness. Many of my compatriots, as I show in the film, only think of emigrating, of fleeing a nation compressed between the China and India, in the middle of the Himalayas. There are a lot of unemployed people.” The speaker is Pawo Choyning Dorji, 39, the most famous Bhutanese filmmaker, but not the only one, in his country, thanks to Lunana, a yak at school, who starred in the biggest surprise of the last Oscar gala, and which has just been released in Spain. “I am very concerned about the image he gives of Bhutan. As a filmmaker from a small country of around 800,000 people, I bear a great cultural and artistic responsibility as an ambassador for cinema. I suspect that few Spaniards have seen a Bhutanese film, and that at most my country will sound like the last Sangri-La on Earth, or that we are all happy here according to the polls…” He was referring, in a conversation held 15 days ago by video call, to these lists of the happiest nations in the world that Bhutan usually leads, and which serve as a claim for spiritual tourism.

Even in the film, we talk about this search for happiness. “Every time I go overseas and show up, almost everyone says, ‘Oh, you must be very happy.’ Bhutanese and being happy seem synonymous in the minds of half the planet. Obviously, we are a Buddhist nation and achieving spiritual happiness is a desire rooted in our culture,” comments the filmmaker. “And then you wonder : If we are so happy, why are so many Bhutanese living in exile?

Image of 'Lunana, a yak at school'
Image of ‘Lunana, a yak at school’

Lunana, a yak at school —which was filmed in 2018 but had to overcome the first wave of the pandemic to find broadcast in the rest of the world— tells the story of a singer in his twenties who lives with his grandmother in Thimphu, the capital, and who is about to emigrate to Australia. But he is a school official and the State requires that before the trip he teaches in Lunana, a remote village in the Himalayas. The screenplay is inspired by classic movies about the relationships between inspiring teachers and disillusioned students such as Conrac, Martin Ritt; Circle of dead poets, by Peter Weir, the The choir boys by Christophe Barratier. “I needed to tell a local story that would touch any human being. We have all had a teacher with whom we connect, who we feel emotionally or culturally inherit. And that through this film my voice could be heard. I hope that Spanish viewers will understand this,” he underlines.

Dorji became an Oscar nominee with his feature debut in the Best Foreign Language Film category. “Yeah, I was the weirdest,” he says. “In front were Paolo Sorrentino, Joachim Treves, the documentary Danish To run away and won Ryusuke Hamaguchi. It’s obvious that I felt like a foreigner all the time”, he recalls. For the first time, his country, Bhutan, reached the Oscar ceremony. “At first it seemed like a joke. The Bhutan label didn’t even show up on the Hollywood academy’s online form when they signed up, and when we walked past the first screen, we thought that since we didn’t have any money to do a campaign or a distributor in the United States, that’s where we would stay. And when we were nominated, I really freaked out. Because it was my debut, and I had already launched my second feature film, Four days before the full moon. Suddenly too many things were pointed at me. In return, meeting Sorrentino or Hamaguchi offset the stress.

Director Pawo Choyning Dorji and his wife, Stephanie Lai, at the Academy Awards in Hollywood on March 27 this year.
Director Pawo Choyning Dorji and his wife, Stephanie Lai, at the Academy Awards in Hollywood on March 27 this year.Jeff Kravitz (FilmMagic)

The filmmaker admits having had a hard time when he started out: shooting a feature film in the most remote city of the most remote country in the world was an ordeal. “There is no film industry here. Even the cameras have to be brought in from outside. I’m not even talking to you about a generator. In return, by dint of using solar panels for lack of electricity, we end up being a sustainable shoot, ”he explains. “Some people told me before I started that I couldn’t solve the logistical problems. That’s why I spent a year and a half compiling all the technical material. Once we got to Lunana, we had no chance of repairing an accident. No one had seen a film there… Until 1999 in Bhutan, which is today a constitutional monarchy, television and the Internet were prohibited.


The son of a diplomat, Dorji was born in India and his family did not return to Bhutan until he started high school. The director answers him from Thimphu, where he is about to start his second feature film as a director. “I would like everyone to know about my country, which is beautiful. I have traveled a lot around the world [se licenció en la Universidad de Lawrence en Wisconsin] for my studies and for my work as a photographer,” he says. “Now it costs $500 to get in, so it’s hard for you to come and visit. What can I do? Well, show it to you in the movies. He came to this conclusion when ‘in 2006 met the lama Khyentse Norbu, who, in addition to being a Buddhist teacher at Dorji, is the one who opened the way to cinema for him, a profession in which he began as a consultant in 1993 for the filming of little buddha, of Bernardo Bertolucci. Dorji followed in his footsteps in Buddhism and in film, as an assistant director and producer.

Dorji doesn’t like the filmmaker label either. “I am a storyteller [storyteller en inglés]. And it doesn’t matter if it’s through film, photography… My passion is to connect people with stories. It’s strange: in my language, there is no word for history, for history. And that makes me feel free in this process, and at the same time engaged in action. Little by little, with short films, I discovered that cinema is a powerful tool to go very far”, he confides. One of the students assures that when he grows up, he will want to be a teacher because in this way “he will touch the future”. Is it the same in the cinema? Dorji laughs and replies, “It’s been 23 years since Bhutan submitted a film for the Oscars, because it’s very difficult to shoot here and even more so in our language. Then yes, Administrator he also wants to encourage young people to be ambitious, to create more directors, to touch the future”.

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