THIMPHU, Bhutan — As a crew of 35 people prepared to make a movie in Bhutan’s remote Lunana Valley, they faced a slew of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The valley had no electricity. It could only be reached by walking eight days from the nearest village. And the schoolchildren who were expected to star in the film knew nothing about acting or cinema.
“They did not even know what a camera was or what it looked like,” Namgay Dorji, the village schoolteacher, said in a telephone interview.
On Tuesday, the movie, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” was nominated for an Academy Award — a first for Bhutan. Its director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, said he had been on an “improbable journey” ever since deciding to shoot the film, his first, in a Himalayan village about three miles above sea level.
“It was so improbable that I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish,” said Mr. Dorji, 38, who is from a rural part of Bhutan that is east of Lunana.
“Somehow we now find ourselves nominated for an Oscar,” he added. “When I found out, it was so unbelievable that I kept telling my friends: ‘What if I wake up tomorrow and I realize all this was a dream?’”
The ‘dark valley’
“Lunana,” which was released digitally on Friday, tells the story of a young teacher from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, who is assigned to work at a remote mountain school against his will. He dreams of quitting his government job, emigrating to Australia and pursuing a career as a singer.
But the teacher, Ugyen, is fascinated by the people he meets in Lunana — particularly 9-year-old Pem Zam, a radiant student with a difficult home life. As the months go by, he begins to take his job more seriously.
Mr. Dorji, who wrote the script, said he made a teacher the protagonist after reading news reports about Bhutanese educators quitting their jobs. He saw that as a symbol of discontent in a poor, isolated country where globalization has caused profound social changes.
Bhutan prides itself on measuring, and maximizing, the “gross national happiness” of its roughly 750,000 people. But Mr. Dorji said young Bhutanese increasingly believe that true happiness lies abroad, in places like Australia, Europe or New York City.
He said he picked the Lunana Valley as the film’s setting because it presented a dramatic contrast with a “well-lit” foreign city. The area is isolated even by the standards of this remote Himalayan kingdom; in Dzongkha, the national language, lunana means “dark valley.”
“My idea was: Can we discover in the shadows and darkness what we are so desperately seeking in the light?” Mr. Dorji, who divides his time among Bhutan, India and Taiwan, said in an interview from Taipei, Taiwan.
Keeping it natural
Turning his vision into a movie was a giant undertaking. The Lunana Valley borders far western China, has glacial lakes and some of the world’s highest peaks, and cannot be reached by car. When health workers administered coronavirus vaccines there last year, they had to fly in by helicopter and walk from village to village through snow and ice.
When Mr. Dorji’s film crew traveled to Lunana in the late summer of 2018, they transported their firewood, batteries, solar chargers and other essential gear on mules. They brought nonperishable rations, such as of dried pumpkin and mushrooms, because there was no refrigeration. And when they arrived, they had to build their own temporary housing.
There was just enough solar power to shoot the movie on a single camera, but not enough for Mr. Dorji to review his footage each night after shooting, as most directors do. So he had to go by his instincts and hope for the best.
His cast presented another challenge. The three main roles were played by nonprofessional actors from Thimphu. The others were all from Lunana — a place where families survive through subsistence agriculture and by harvesting a valuable alpine fungus — and had never even seen a movie.
“The camera in front of them could have been a yak, for all they cared,” Mr. Dorji said.
Mr. Dorji said he adapted to his characters’ lack of experience by tailoring the script to their lives, encouraging them to essentially play themselves. Pem Zam, for instance, goes by her real name in the movie.
Mr. Dorji also shot scenes in the order in which they appear in the film, so that his actors could let their characters develop with the story. He also added scenes that he felt were poignant examples of real village life. One example: In a scene where Ugyen teaches his students how to use a toothbrush, they aren’t acting; they really didn’t know.
The result is a film that successfully captures a sense of innocence, the Oscar-winning director Ang Lee told Mr. Dorji in a video call last month. He described “Lunana” as a “breath of fresh air.”
“It’s a precious, precious, very simple but very touching movie,” Mr. Lee said. “Thank you for going through all that and sharing your country and culture with us.”
An unlikely hit
“Lunana” is Bhutan’s first Oscar entry since “The Cup,” a 1999 film that was written and directed by Mr. Dorji’s teacher Khyentse Norbu. That film, which chronicles the arrival of television in a monastery, was not shortlisted or nominated for an Academy Award.
The Bhutanese government submitted “Lunana” for last year’s Oscars, but it was disqualified: The national film committee had gone so long without submitting a film for consideration that it was no longer officially recognized by the Academy.
For the 2022 awards, the country formed a special selection committee. And in December, “Lunana” was among 15 shortlisted of 93 Academy Award submissions from around the world. On Tuesday, it was one of five films — alongside others from Japan, Denmark, Italy and Norway — nominated for an Oscar in the International Feature Film category.
Karma Phuntsho, the selection committee’s chairman, said “Lunana” reflects the maturation of a domestic film industry that’s only about three decades old.
“I have been encouraging my friends in the film industry to look beyond the small Bhutanese market and share our stories with the world,” he said. “Pawo has done that with a flair and it is a proud moment for all Bhutanese and friends of Bhutan.”
Mr. Dorji said the film was made on a $300,000 budget — “peanuts when it comes to filmmaking” — and that he never expected to have much help publicizing it. Now it’s being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and marketed by a public relations agency with offices in New York and Beverly Hills.
News of the film’s success has trickled back to Lunana, according to Kaka, a 51-year-old village headman there who goes by one name. “The people back home are happy that their village has become known to the world,” he said by telephone.
Namgay Dorji, 35, the real-life schoolteacher whose experience of living in the Lunana Valley for a decade inspired parts of the script, said the film’s international success had inspired him to stay in the area longer than he had once planned to.
“When I was in front of the camera, I wasn’t that excited,” said Mr. Dorji, the schoolteacher, who appeared in the film as an extra. “But after watching it and listening to the children’s dialogue, I realized how much hardship our community has had to overcome.”
Chencho Dema reported from Thimphu, Bhutan, and Mike Ives from Seoul.