Bhutanese movie ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ came a long way for a shot at an Academy Award

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·3 min read

The underdog story of this Academy Award season centers around a yak that marks the nation of Bhutan’s first Oscars submission of the century.

Filming “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” in the heart of the Himalayan mountain range was rife with challenges, including the use of cameras fueled by solar-powered batteries. The movie itself centers around a teacher assigned to a remote school in an area where winters are unforgiving and amenities are few.

But getting the film in front of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences became a daunting hike of its own that’s been years in the making.

Director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s highly praised 2019 debut was initially rejected by the Academy because the Bhutanese government’s Ministry of Information and Communications, which submitted it for consideration, has been stagnant for so long that it wasn’t recognized by the nominations committee. Bhutan’s sole submission for Best Foreign Language Film had been 1999′s “The Cup.” It did not get nominated.

By the time Bhutanese officials were informed that “Lunana” did not disqualify for deliberation leading up to the 93rd Academy Awards, the news came too late for the landlocked nation’s organizers to put together a formal selection committee that could resubmit the movie for consideration in the U.S.

In 2021, the newly formed National Film Commission of Bhutan Committee created a selection committee for the purpose of submitting Bhutanese films to competitions including the Oscars. That committee includes “The Cup” director Khyentse Norbu. “Lunana” was introduced once more to Academy and is believed to be on the shortlist for the 94th Academy Awards, slated to take place on March 27. Nominations will be announced Feb. 7.

Dorji told the Daily News that being nominated for an Academy Award was not on his mind while “Lunana” was being filmed.

“Absolutely not!” he said by email from Bhutan. “We had such challenges when making the film, we were severely limited in terms of logistics. We had one old camera body, two light mats, and classroom full of kids who had never even watched a film and a semi-domestic 700 kg yak! We had nothing but the power of the sun to charge our batteries. I was only thinking of if I would be able to finish the film.”

Should the Academy put his film in the running for an Oscar, Dorji said he’ll make the 7,800-mile trip to Los Angeles in March.

“Even the shortlisting is a historic first for Bhutan,” he said.

“A nomination would also be a celebration of the possibilities for art and filmmaking, that a small film shot in the world’s most remote school, made by a first-time director, a nonprofessional crew and cast… can be recognized by the Academy.”

The flick’s honors so far include the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film at the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival and the Prix du Public at France’s Festival international du film de Saint-Jean-de-Luz.


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