RACHEL KAUFMAN WRITES – The end of March brought the 94th annual Academy Awards and with it came more historic nominations, wins, and…happenings, one being the small country of Bhutan’s first Oscar nomination in the category of Best International Feature Film, titled Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, which was written and directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji. The film is a commentary on Bhutan’s policy of measuring a Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) to gauge the country’s success rather than the usual measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) used conventionally by the United States and other notable countries.
At the start of the movie the main character, Ugyen, a teacher, is planning a big move to Australia, when he is assigned to work in the tiny, secluded village of Lunana. In the film it is mentioned that this is the most secluded school in Bhutan and potentially the whole world. To get there requires a multiple hour bus ride and an eight-day trek from Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu, where Ugyen lives. His assignment to teach in this village is part of the GNH program that ensures education to all children of Bhutan. In contrast with the United States’ GDP, Bhutan has invested in its population and placed importance on the non-economic aspects of a country’s well-being, including 9 domains, some of the most notable being: psychological wellbeing, education, community vitality, good governance, and living standards. The film directly addresses the pillars of education and community vitality by placing Ugyen in a tight-knit, heavily bonded community that desperately lacks an educational system.
Despite some resistance, Ugyen decides to embark on the journey and spend time teaching in the remote village.
The film’s tagline reads: “Find what you seek, in a place you never expected.” This alludes to the fact that despite Bhutan’s efforts to increase happiness, people have been leaving Bhutan in recent years in pursuit of something better–which was actually Ugyen’s plan at the beginning of the movie.
Although Bhutan’s film lost out to Japan’s Drive My Car, the recognition that A Yak in the Classroom has received from its nomination has brought increased interest to Bhutan-something that the country doesn’t often receive from those of us in the West. Given that the US is the country with the world’s highest GDP (a staggering rate of over $19.4 trillion), and host of the ‘staggering’ Oscars, maybe it’s time the nation took a page from Bhutan’s book and produce more upbeat, thoughtful movies like this. It would certainly top off my happiness.