Half-way through the movie Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom a yak named Norbu, does appear in the classroom. Norbu is the village’s gift to Ugyen, the teacher. Norbu is one of the oldest yaks in the villagers’ herd, but he is still prolific in providing the one element that is the source of everyone’s heat – dung; Ugyen is told to feed Norbu as much as necessary to produce the amount of fuel he needs to keep warm.
After a bit of research, I learned a few yak facts. A yak is an early genetic ancestor of the North American bison and is similar in many ways. But it is different in its red blood cells, lack of sweat glands, and diet consisting entirely in grass – which means that they are the perfect herd animal for higher elevations.
And Bhutan, where this film was made, has lots of that. It is nestled high in the Himalayans with China on the North and India on the other three borders. Its geography ranges from 660 feet in elevation in some of the southern river valleys to almost 25,000 feet in the northern mountains, resulting in some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. About 84 percent of the population practices Vajrayana Buddhism, perhaps explaining why it is the only country that measures Gross National Happiness. Given all that, is it really a surprise that in this very unusual country you might find a yak in the classroom?
The movie’s main character, though, is not Norbu, but Ugyen, a young man in his twenties who lives in Bhutan’s capital city. Ugyen wants to go to Australia and become a singer but has one more year on his contract with the Ministry of Education to serve as a teacher. In what we are to believe is a helpful insight by the minister, Ugyen is assigned to teach for a few months in the remote village of Lunana (population 56; elevation 15,748 ft) – advertised as the most remote school in Bhutan, and possibly in the entire world. You get an increasing sense of how remote it is as Ugyen ascends in altitude to different locations that are descending in population. All but the first day of the journey is on foot.
The journey up to Lunana begins to capture what is wonderful about this film. For one, the cinematography is terrific. Filmed in color and with a letterbox aspect ratio, the format invites terrific panoramic landscapes, and the countryside is more than able to provide them — you will be stunned by Bhutan’s natural beauty. As you ascend in altitude and become increasingly distanced from the modern world, you begin to appreciate the simple pleasures that this movie delivers.
The ‘fish out of water’ tale is a story often told. But what makes this one special is the genuineness of the characters. Only three of the characters in this movie are actors, the rest are the actual villagers of Lunana. The village is relatively prosperous because it has access to an abundant supply of a medicinal fungi which only grows at high altitudes. Still, the people place a high value on education and, while they strongly believe in their culture as yak herders, they want their children to enjoy a different, and hopefully, better future.
You can find lots of faults with the film – many times the young children’s behavior seems forced, like they were told what to say. And, sometimes, you can catch them glancing at the camera; apparently the villagers had never seen a movie, much less a camera. So you have to marvel at their ability to “stick to script.” But, in so many ways, that is the charm of this movie. It is an honest tale of an honest people. Whether you accept the character’s transformation or not, you must believe in the people surrounding him. They have a reality that is missing in the modern world, and a spiritual relationship with their yaks that is all powerful. This movie will be too simple for many. But if you want a beautiful experience with a culture that you likely don’t know, watch Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. (3.5*)
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