Behind the Lens with Pawo Choyning Dorji

Behind the Lens with Pawo Choyning Dorji
Kodaikanal International School

The KIS alumni community is abuzz over the news that Pawo Choyning Dorji (Class of ’02) was shortlisted as Bhutan’s first-ever nominated film for the 94th Academy Award’s Best International Feature Film submission.  Dorji’s entry ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ has stirred the International film-making community and critics with its modest and heartfelt simplicity that showcases the beauty of Bhutan and its people. On a Facebook post, Dorji recollects how he had to initiate the Oscar committee to update their entire website so that they could even include ‘Dzongkha’ as a possible language submission. He says, “this submission was not about progressing in the Oscars race, but rather, to create a space for Bhutan, for our culture and our people to be represented on an international stage. There is so much wisdom and compassion that Bhutan can share with the world. I was just honored to be one of the 92 films recognized as Oscar submissions.”

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is special as it features the world’s most remote school in a glacial village in the Himalayas at over 5,000 meters above sea level. Choyning describes that the film was shot entirely on solar batteries due to the lack of resources. The film’s cast also features the highlanders of the region. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom has become a film festival favorite, winning over 20 international awards and securing distribution worldwide.

We at KIS are honored to be able to celebrate this moment with our fellow alumni and take the opportunity to learn more about his journey, thought process, passion for films, and of course Kodai.


Please describe your journey into films after finishing school.

After graduating in 2002 from KIS, I did my undergraduate degree from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Lawrence was a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Even though I did my degree in Government through Lawrence’s liberal arts program, I had the opportunity to be exposed to many different fields of studies, including art and creativity. I graduated in 2006, after which I traveled back to India to study Buddhism in the northern regions of Himachal Pradesh.

Reconnecting with India and studying Buddhism got me interested in creating and sharing stories through mediums such as photography and film. I first became a photographer and have had numerous solo photography exhibitions. My photographs have been published by LIFE magazine, The Wall Street Journal, VICE, etc. My most notable photography project: The Light of the Moon, took me five years to complete. The project retraced the 7th-century Buddhist Master Xuanzang’s Journey to the West. It took me through the ancient silk roads of Central Asia, the Gobi deserts of Xinjiang, the Hindukush mountains of Afghanistan, the hidden valleys of the Karakoram in Northern Pakistan, and the tropical plains of India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

I studied filmmaking under renowned Bhutanese Buddhist Lama/filmmaker Khyentse Norbu. I worked as his Assistant for the feature film Vara: A Blessing (2013) and produced his 4th feature film Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait (2016). Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019) was my directorial debut. I also produced and wrote the film.

Name some of the movies or directors that inspired you in your journey as a filmmaker.

I never went to a film school, so I became a filmmaker by getting practical lessons from being on the set. My introduction to film came from working as a Director’s Assistant for Khyentse Norbu. He was kind enough to take me under his wing. Working as his assistant, I got first-hand experience in every aspect of filmmaking, from scriptwriting, production design, casting, directing, cinematography, and editing. If there was one single director who has inspired and influenced me, it would be him.

I am still a student of the art of films, so the cinema is my classroom. Directors such as Japanese Director Hirokazu Koreeda and British Director Ken Loach have greatly inspired me. I am also a big fan of Quentin Tarintino.

In your interviews, you talk about the youth of Bhutan having a curiosity for life beyond Bhutan; how much of this same curiosity did you experience as a teenager at KIS?

One of the central themes of my movie is this seeking for happiness and a sense of belongingness. Everyone’s on their own journeys seeking where they belong, and for most, life is about the pursuit of happiness. Bhutan is supposedly the happiest country in the world, but I also find it ironic that so many Bhutanese are looking beyond Bhutan for what they seek out of life as they aren’t happy in Bhutan.

I consider myself fortunate, as I have had a multicultural upbringing growing up in Bhutan, India, the Middle East, Switzerland, and the United States. I got to experience the world, and my years in Kodai were some of the most formative years. A lot of who I am, the stories I tell, and even Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom are inspired by my time in Kodai.

What was your journey like returning to your roots?

Many Bhutanese spend their formative years in Bhutan, looking beyond the snowy Himalayas, often wondering what the world is like beyond Bhutan. It was the opposite for me, as I am the son of a diplomat. I had experienced much of the world before returning to Bhutan. That aspect of my life made me appreciate the uniqueness of Bhutan’s culture and traditions even more.

In Bhutan, we have a saying, “one cannot see one’s own eyelashes because it’s too close to yourself”, and I think that’s the case for many in Bhutan. Since they grow up within the culture and traditions, they don’t see it as much as someone who looks from the outside. The journey of discovery that the protagonist goes through in Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was actually inspired by my own journey of returning to my roots. The film was my love letter to Bhutan.

The movie has been praised for being created so beautifully on a shoestring budget, with inexperienced artists glorifying the landscape of Bhutan; what were some of the challenges you faced making such a film. How did you approach your challenges, such as casting, equipment, etc.?

We shot the movie on location in the village of Lunana, probably the most isolated village in Bhutan. It takes 10 days of trekking over the highest mountain peaks in the world to get to the village, and it’s so far that they don’t have any electricity or network connections. Making an international level film with such limitations was a huge challenge.

We were in pre-production for almost 18 months, as we had to carry all our equipment to Lunana on horseback. We brought all our solar panels, batteries, rations to last us through the production, and even firewood as the village was so high that we were over the tree line! We needed firewood as that was the only means of preparing our food.

Working and living in Lunana for two and half months were extremely difficult. We had no proper beds to sleep in and couldn’t even take a shower during the shoot. Being cut off from the rest of the world, your family, friends, and loved ones can be mentally and emotionally taxing. By the end of the shoot, so many of our team were suffering from altitude sickness and were also mentally drained.

Bhutan doesn’t have many professionally trained actors, so we cast local villagers to play themselves. We thought this would be challenging. Strangely, it worked out in our favor. Since the highlanders had lived a lifetime in isolation, they had no concept of cinema. Hence, they had no inhibitions about being in front of the camera because they did not know what a camera was! They were just themselves, and so it worked out great.


You have a prominent theme of light and darkness in your movie. Can you describe to us what these elements signify and why it is important to you to bring out such a discussion amongst the Bhutanese people and the world?

Bhutan is a poor undeveloped country, so it’s very natural for the Bhutanese to look beyond Bhutan for what they seek. I think it’s a common trend in Bhutan and for the rest of humanity to always seek what they seek in the light.

Many Bhutanese are leaving Bhutan, lured by the glittering lights of the modern, urban and developed cities. With Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, I wanted to create a story where we take the protagonist on the opposite end of the spectrum into the most remote, desolate settlement known to man. So remote that the village is known as Lunana (dark valley in local dialects).

I wanted to explore if we could indeed discover in the darkness and shadows what we so desperately seek in the light. The message throughout the film was that only through the experience of the shadows and darkness can we truly appreciate the beauty of the light.


What is the significance of the Yak in the film?

The yak is so vital for the Bhutanese living in the highlands. They depend on the yak for milk, cheese, butter, hair, meat, and even the dung is used as fuel as these villages are at such an altitude that there are no trees to use for firewood. There is no life without the Yak in these villages.

So important is the yak that the song of the highlands, which I use as almost the central musical theme in the movie, is a song that praises the yaks of Bhutan. If you carefully listen to the lyrics of the Yak Lebi Lhadar song, the lyrics tell the story of Bhutan. It is a song that sings about the cultural beliefs, the spiritual traditions, and even the reverence the Bhutanese have for the world. So, if you ask me – the yak represents Bhutan.


How did it feel for you to receive so much appreciation for your work?

It feels very surreal, as I never expected all this. I made this film to tell and preserve the Bhutanese story. I wanted to share the story with the Bhutanese so they may realize and appreciate the preciousness of our culture and way of life.

In Bhutan, we believe in the karma of all phenomena. As the film started traveling around the world, it started developing its own karma. We took it from the world’s most remote classroom all the way to the Dolby theater of the Oscars.

I realize that for many filmmakers, an Oscar nomination is a crowning achievement in a lifetime that is dedicated to hard work, sacrifice, and perfecting the art of filmmaking. I feel incredibly fortunate to get a nomination with just my first film. I am humbled but also inspired. This experience has inspired me to create more stories to share with the world.


Is there anything else in the pipeline?

I was in the pre-production phase of my second film, which was shelved due to the COVID situation in Bhutan and due to Lunana’s Oscar campaign. The Bhutanese government has decided to move to a more open approach to the pandemic, and since the Oscars are now over, I will be getting back to pre-production. I hope to start principal photography sometime this year. 

What would be your message to students pursuing film at KIS today?

I would tell them to “never stop being curious”. There is so much we experience every day; we have to be willing to see and listen to truly take it in. These experiences come back as inspiration years later in the most unexpected ways!

One of the most popular lines in Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is a line when the yak herder boy tells his teacher, “I wish to become a teacher because a teacher touches the future.” Many are in awe of that, but actually, the inspiration behind that line was all the way back from Kodai. I used to live in Claverack, which meant I would have to walk to school every day, and I would always end up getting late for the first class of the day, which was English with Mr. David Stengele. I ended up collecting many tardy slips and was once summoned to the dean’s office, where I was getting a stern warning from Ms. Anju Taneja. While sitting in her office, I remember she had a framed sign that read, “I am a teacher, I touch the future”. Who would have thought that something like that would plant a seed of inspiration that would materialize so many decades later?

I also think it’s crucial for aspiring filmmakers to never give up on the stories they wish to share with the world. If you have the right motivation and work hard in perfecting your craft, anything is possible. As I shared earlier, I never made Lunana to get recognition and win awards. Many told me that making such a film would be impossible, but we never wavered from our aspiration to share this story with the world.  The journey of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, from a small solar-powered film made deep in the Himalayas by a first-time director featuring actors who had never acted before, to being recognized as one of the five best international films in the world by the Oscars, is a testament that anything is possible. I hope this journey inspires Kodai students to never stop believing in themselves.