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'Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,' is an unexpected Oscar nominee, and I'm better off for having seen it

Samuel Goldwyn Films

One of the bigger surprises from this year’s Oscar nominations was the inclusion of a movie from the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan in among the heavy hitters in the International Feature category. The rest of the nominees already carry some level of prestige, either being also nominated in a number of other categories or coming from major filmmakers. This one, though? I’d wager most people had never heard of it.

I count myself among those people, but I’ve heard of it now, and I’m better off for it. The movie is called Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, and if the title feels a little whimsical, it is, but as I learned, it’s also truthful in its advertising. It tells the story of a young man who’s entering his fifth and final year as a teacher, fulfilling his government service requirement. He dreams of moving to Australia to become a singer, but for this final year of service, he’s being assigned to a school in Lunana, a village of 56 people. On top of that, he’s told this school is not only the most remote school in Bhutan, but also in the entire world. After a week-long hike, he arrives in the village, finds the people there are incredibly eager to meet him, and the children are very excited to learn. He’s treated as one of the most important people in the world, because, as he’s told, a teacher is someone who “touches the future,” and if he can help the children to be educated, they might be able to go on to become something other than farmers and yak herders. Not that those are bad things, but even in this remotest of remote places, the parents want something more for their kids.

The film is calm and gently playful, and more than anything, it’s a lovely celebration of Bhutan itself and its people and stunning beauty. The country prioritizes what it calls Gross National Happiness, which it holds more important than the Gross National Product—but even with that, as Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom reminds us, happiness is quite a bit more nuanced than we realize, especially if we can’t see it right in front of our faces.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is available on VOD

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.