A yak in the classroom, a family in Hollywood

LOS ANGELES – ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ became the unlikely Oscar contender when it was nominated for Best International Film this year. The story of a young man in Bhutan who embarks on an unexpected and life-changing journey to become a teacher in the country’s remote mountains is director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s debut feature film and the first film in the history of the small Himalayan country to who was nominated.

Dorji and his wife, Taiwanese actress and producer Stephanie Lai, arrived in Los Angeles along with their 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son a few weeks before Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony.

He shared some of their experiences with The Associated Press in this first-person account.

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A “BORING YAK”

As I’ve been working on Lunana, A Yak in the Classroom for the past two years, it’s been talked about a lot with my kids. My son couldn’t understand the big fuss and asked me why I worked so hard to make such a “boring and slow” film that has a “yak doing nothing but sitting there”. He often said, “Dad, next time could you maybe try making movies that are fun, like Spider-Man?”

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When the film was announced as Bhutan’s first-ever Oscar nominee, my wife and I both winced and screamed with delight. Our two children, who had never seen their parents so excited, asked what the Oscars were. I told them that we had just been named one of the top five international films in the world and that we had to go to Hollywood.

They asked us who else was going to be at the Oscars and I said to them, ‘Everyone!’ My son replied, ‘Even Spider-Man?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course! Even Spider-Man will be there!” They started jumping and asked me if I could introduce them to Andrew Garfield, their favorite Spider-Man. I didn’t know Andrew was nominated for an Oscar for Tick, tick…BOOM! and honestly I didn’t think it would be possible to meet him in Hollywood, but I said anyway, “Yes, yes, I promise you will meet Andrew Garfield!” because I didn’t want to disappoint her. The children jumped for joy and were finally happy about the “boring yak”.

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My kids told many of their friends that they were going to Hollywood to meet Andrew Garfield. I was very worried about disappointing her and even warned my wife, “Don’t tell the kids, but someone like Andrew Garfield wouldn’t have time to meet us.”

AN EXCITING SPIDER-MAN

Upon arrival in California, my wife and I attended the nominees’ luncheon on March 7th at the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel. It was such a surreal moment sitting in the same room as Steven Spielberg, Denzel Washington, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jessica Chastain and others, yes, Andrew Garfield!

My wife and I sneaked up to him. When I introduced myself, he took my hand and said, “Oh, I’ve been to Bhutan and I loved it so much! I was so happy to see that a Bhutanese film was nominated.” My wife and I then shared with Andrew how our children, who were not with us at the moment, wanted to meet him and he graciously agreed.

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My wife quickly went to get the kids at the lunch drop-off point. Andrew was so nice he stopped by and talked to the kids like they were old friends and even gave my son a high five. My kids said meeting Andrew Garfield was the “best moment of their lives”!

When we got back to the hotel room that evening, we told our son to wash up before bed. He looked down at his tiny hands and said, “But Andrew Garfield high-fived me if I wash I lose his energy.”

AN UNEXPECTED PART OF BHUTAN

When “Lunana” defied most predictions and was first shortlisted and then nominated for Best International Feature Film, I received congratulations and well wishes from Bhutanese people from all over the world, from yak herders in the real Lunana village to monks from the farthest reaches monasteries, for children in the city. While other films have received financial backing from their governments, “Lunana” had just that, the genuine hopes, prayers and aspirations of an entire nation.

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But I didn’t expect that on our journey we would find a part of this nation and this hope and prayer.

When we weren’t busy with the film’s Oscar campaign, we would take day trips to take the kids to the most popular places in Los Angeles. My wife was the designated driver while I was the chief navigator with the GPS. Coming back from a drive, I missed an exit on the freeway and we ended up getting lost.

While listening to my wife and trying to navigate the Santa Monica rush hour, I suddenly saw the orange and yellow colors of the Bhutanese flag! As we drove closer in amazement, we saw a sign that said “Bhutan Shop”. My wife said, “Oh, you must visit this store!” We stopped the car and I quickly rushed inside.

The shop sold Bhutanese handicrafts. There was a teenager behind the counter, and even though I was still wearing my medical mask, he looked up and said, ‘Oh, it’s you! You’re the yak manager, aren’t you?” The family-run shop was owned by a man named Dorji—no relation to me—who was the first Bhutanese to emigrate to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. The teenager, his 18-year-old son Ugyen – unrelated to the protagonist of my film of the same name – was born here in LA and had not yet visited Bhutan. Ugyen looked so American but seemed so proud of how a film from his parents’ faraway homeland had been nominated for an Oscar. “I’ve been following you on IG since 2016,” he said, “and I know all of your work.”

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I didn’t know any Bhutanese in LA, so I was surprised when Dorji informed me that there were only about 50 Bhutanese in the entire Los Angeles area. He said they all planned to attend a screening of the film in Santa Monica, where I was conducting a Q&A session. “The film is so proud that all the Bhutanese said they would attend the screening in their national costumes,” said Dorji.

“We’re only a handful here, but we try our best to have small gatherings to keep us connected to our culture and way of life,” he said. “Many of our youth who were born here refuse to attend these meetings as they find it boring and awkward. But when it comes to ‘Lunana’, they’re all excited.”

Dorji, Ugyen and I took a photo in front of the Bhutan Shop which was quickly shared on the LA Bhutanese community group chat. As the photo made its rounds, the next day I was invited to a Bhutanese meal by the second Bhutanese who had settled in the LA area, a man who introduced himself to me as “Ashang,” which in our language means ” uncle” means.

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Ashang’s wife’s delicious home-cooked food, who everyone called “auntie,” made me miss my family and home so much. I asked them how they get the authentic fermented cheese and chillies our kitchen is known for. Ashang laughed and said, “Oh, I ask my family in Bhutan to mail us fermented cheese every month.”

On the day of the screening, we were invited to the Bhutan Shop, where all of LA’s Bhutanese had gathered for a lunch of saffron rice and butter tea, something that in Bhutan is usually only prepared on the finest occasions. Most of the Bhutanese had donned their Sunday best national dress to celebrate.

I was so far from home, but I had never felt so close to home.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/entertainment/2022/03/25/oscars-diary-a-yak-in-the-classroom-a-family-in-hollywood/ A yak in the classroom, a family in Hollywood

Jaclyn Diaz

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