Shot in the depths of one of the most isolated countries on the planet, nestled in the Himalayan mountains, “School at the End of the World” is the first Bhutanese film nominated for an Oscar. It questions “the quest for happiness”, according to its director, Pawo Choyning Dorji. Naturally. Nominated in January for the Oscars in the category of best international feature film, “School at the end of the world” is located in Lunana, the village in Bhutan where the film was shot. Located at 3,400 meters above sea level, it has no more than fifty souls, ten days’ walk from the nearest road. The script of “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom”, its original title, is imbued with Bhutanese mysticism and references to respect for nature. The action takes place in an untouched natural setting with vast expanses of virgin land and snow-capped peaks. The story deals with the difficulties of a society in transition symbolized by Ugyen, a teacher unhappy to have been transferred to this backwater of Lunana, a village of yak herders and mushroom pickers, he who dreamed of a career singer in Australia. “It’s a universal human story, about the quest for what you want, your place (in the world), happiness,” the 38-year-old director told AFP. Upon his arrival in the village, Ugyen is rather negative, but the kindness of the inhabitants — played by the real villagers of Lunana who, for the most part, have never seen a film — lead him to question himself. When his young pupils point out to him that a teacher “tu the future”, touched, his perspective begins to change. The status of teacher is highly respected in Bhutan. Along with doctors and civil servants, they are among the best paid in the country. Yet hundreds of them quit every year. Bhutan, famous for its Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, prioritizes the well-being of its people over its economic growth. In the early scenes of the film, Ugyen wears a Tshirt with a pattern reminiscent of this reputation. Still, thousands of Bhutanese have left the country in recent years in search of better economic and educational opportunities. “So many Bhutanese seem to be leaving this so-called ‘happiness country’ in search of happiness elsewhere,” says Dorji. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he adds, “that’s life.” Australia, where Bhutan opened an embassy in October, is the favorite destination for these emigrants. In Bhutan, we now talk about “the Australian dream”. Lunana embodies this societal change. 3G was installed there just as production on the film was wrapping up. Young student, school and movie star Pem Zam, Dorji says, “messages him on Facebook. Even the teacher there posts beautiful pictures on Instagram.” Winters are long and harsh in Bhutan. Electricity is only produced by solar energy. The multiple logistical challenges are significant. To transport the equipment and materials necessary for the shooting of the film, it was necessary to use 75 mules. Over 70 helicopter trips were made to transport cast and crew. The school yak died of old age some time after filming. “He was one of the stars of the film”, recalls the filmmaker, “we are saddened that he is gone, but happy that he lives through the film”. Crediting him like all the other actors in the credits is “just the way things are done in Bhutan,” he also explains, “our beasts aren’t just beasts, they have names and personalities.” This is the second time that a Bhutanese film is in competition for the Academy Award, after “The Cup” by Khyentse Norbu, Dorji’s mentor, which had been praised by critics in 1999, but not to the point of joining the finalists. “The School at the End of the World” has already won 18 awards at international festivals, but Dorji says he has “no expectations” regarding its potential consecration next month. Many Bhutanese had never heard of the Oscars before. A monk assured him that he had given a kilo of homemade butter and 50 Bhutanese ngultrum ($0.60) as an offering to a temple for prayers dedicated to the Oscar. “Other films have big budgets to boost their campaign, not us”, underlines Dorji, “ours is carried by the hopes, the aspirations and the prayers of an entire country”.
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‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ from the first Oscar-nominated Bhutanese film