A Critical Review of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

Like many in Bhutan who are exhausted of the usual Bhutanese film narrative which has remained stagnant for such a long time, I had been eagerly and excitedly following Lunana’s journey in high hopes and anticipation that it would change the face of our film industry. I was overjoyed when the film finally came back home after much success internationally and got together with some friends to experience the magic. I hadn’t felt this way about a Bhutanese movie for a very long time!

As I watched Lunana, captivated by its beautiful cinematography and a storyline that matched the elegance of the visuals in its simplicity, I kept getting an uneasy feeling of déjà vu during certain parts of the movie, like the scene in the bar, scene in the shoe store, hoisting the prayer flags atop the mountain pass, humorous scene with the mislabelled toilet as ‘kitchen’, image of the toilet seat rim used as a basketball ring, etc. It was here that I had a moment of realization as I remembered watching a documentary, shot in Lunana with a very similar plot, 16 years ago when I was 9 years old titled, School Among Glaciers.

Couple of days later, I got a copy of the documentary from my aunt and decided to watch it. I was able to fill the gaps in my memory and confirm some of the unexplained feelings of unease I had during Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.

1. Lunana isn’t the first-ever film to be shot on location using solar power

As I followed Lunana’s reviews done by others as well as it’s own marketing language, this point made repeated appearances:

‘Shot on-location in Lunana, the school really is the most remote in the world, as the crew had to rely on solar power themselves for their equipment’

Andrew Heskins, Easternkicks

‘Shot in the world’s most remote school at an impressive altitude of around 5000m above sea level…Challenges abound while shooting, they had nothing but the power of the sun to charge their equipment ‘

Daily Bhutan

‘Lunana was shot on-location…at an altitude of 16,500 feet…on solar charged batteries’

 John Hopewell, Variety

‘A solar powered film from Bhutan, shot on location at the world’s most remote school’

Profile bio, @lunana.film

Although the film doesn’t claim to be the first-ever, the difficulty and challenge with this project seems overstated considering that this was already done 16 years ago when School Among Glaciers was shot at the exact same location with much less advanced camera and solar equipments.

2. The camera framing, angles and stylistic elements seems to be heavily borrowed

One of Lunana’s qualities that shone through was the sheer visual treat that the film offered its viewers. The absolutely breathtaking images on the screen was able to express the raw untouched beauty of our mountains and the incredible sense of freedom and space that only a place so high above could offer. However as I watched School Among Glaciers, I noticed some stark resemblances between the two.

For the following points below, since clips of Lunana is limited to its trailer, it is not possible to make a side by side presentation. Instead, I will best try to describe it with words. As such, it assumes that the reader has already watched Lunana.

The stylistic element that Lunana uses to inform its viewers about the upward journey in elevation (the name of the place and the meters above sea level on bottom left corner) is very reminiscent of the same element used in the documentary. Lunana’s only contribution is the humorous irony of the population size which decreases as we increase in elevation.

Another major similarity that I found involves one of the most heart-touching moments as the teacher take his students out of their classroom to learn outside. The mood is joyful where games are played, songs are sung and memories are made. Here I found similarity in the theme, scene, framing as well as the mood.

Similarly, even the scene where the students are standing in a line and the teacher educates them on personal hygiene and sanitation shares similarity

Generally, to portray the raw limitless beauty of Lunana seems to come across as important in both the films with adequate use of wide angle shots overall to capture this and similarities in framing for certain scenes. Needless to say, the cinematography in Lunana is incredible and so is the cinematography for School Among Glaciers which are both miles ahead for its time.

3. Parallelism in plot line

Lunana follows a very similar plot line with School Among Glaciers. Both films expresses the tension between a modern teacher who travels to the most remotest school in Bhutan with some scenes being almost identical: encounter with a government official, the bar where the teacher tells his friends about his arduous journey, the shop where he purchases hiking boots, being woken up for breakfast, his encounter with the ‘unknown’ i.e. Lunana and its people and the untamable weather that forces the teacher to return back to Thimphu.

More specifically, the scene in Lunana where the local nomads hoist lung dhar (wind prayer flags) and offer prayers of safe passage as they reach to the mountain pass is also borrowed from the documentary; the only difference being a dhar shing (wooden prayer flag) instead of lung dhar. Even the dialogue exchange between the urban teacher, Ugyen and the local nomad, Michen as to why the nomads perform this ceremony as they cross the pass is uncannily similar.

Even towards the end of the Lunana, as they make their return journey back, the modern teacher who initially can’t be bothered by such ceremonies is transformed by his stay in Lunana and takes the initiative to perform this gesture of prayer of his own free will. This also seems to be borrowed from the documentary.

Additionally the natural and spontaneous humor of Lunana where I along with others in the cinema hall found refreshingly new finds many similarities with School Among Glaciers. The first is the mislabelled toilet sign as a ‘kitchen’ which is funny as it is innocently adorable.

Likewise, even the toilet seat rim used as a basketball ring in Lunana which inspired some laughter seems borrowed from the documentary

A toilet seat rim made basketball ring in School Among Glaciers

Likewise, the scene where the teacher receives much-needed school supplies also seems to bear a striking similarity; In the documentary, there is a humorous exchange where a nomad asks the teacher if their kids really need to study the human skeletal system as part of their schooling.

At the end of Lunana, the movie shows the desolate scene after the teacher leaves where the classroom is once again empty and cold, the blackboard untouched and the chairs unoccupied. It seems to borrow from the end of School Among Glaciers where this scene is also portrayed.

4. Divergence in Lunana

Lunana the film diverges from the documentary School Among Glaciers in that the central themes are different; While the former picks on the contemporary phenomenon of perfectly capable Bhutanese chasing the Australian dream abroad while abandoning our own homeland, the latter questions the one-size-fit-all approach of Bhutanese education system to cater to all Bhutanese.

While Ugyen (in Lunana) is in tension with a community that has understood the value of education, Nawang Rabten (in School Among Glaciers) remains in tension with a community that bribes him in yak milk so that their children are not asked to be sent to school. The former focuses on the transformation that Ugyen (and those like him) must undergo to realize the impact of their dream-chasing abroad on our home; the latter focuses on the transformation that a community must undergo and negotiate to be convinced of the value of education for their children.

So where does it leave Lunana?

Of course we are all entitled to draw our own conclusions as to where Lunana stands after making all relevant considerations, but for me, it would be untrue to portray or consume Lunana as an original piece of work, which many might, who are unfamiliar with the documentary from 16 years ago. According to a friend who attended Lunana’s Bhutan debut, the director admitted having taken ‘inspiration‘ from the documentary but for me, it seems like an ‘adaptation‘.

This choice of words could be a simple difference worthy of being said in passing to some people but for me, it seems to have huge implications in how we understand and appreciate a piece of art. For other films that have been adapted like the Harry Potter series or the hugely popular Game of Thrones, I as a consumer was always made aware of its original piece, which in these two cases are books. However in the case of Lunana, I believe that most people are unaware and genuinely consider Lunana to be completely original. This is dangerous as it undermines ethics in creativity. This dilemma could have been easily resolved if Lunana had included a closing screen that credited being ‘Adapted from School Among Glaciers‘.

The other major implication that this has is that the actual hero from whom both the stories originated is completely left in the shadows. I’ve listened to several interviews and read much about Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom but there was never a mention of the actual real-life protagonist. The protagonist of School Among Glaciers, Nawang Rabten was a teacher (and continues to be so) who made the journey up to Lunana because of his belief in the power and value of education. In appreciation of the great film that Lunana is, let us not forget the source which made the film possible.

NOTE: Due to my relation with the writer-director of School Among Glaciers, Dorji Wangchuk, some readers could easily accuse me of being motivated by this. When I approached him, he even dissuaded me from writing this piece. However, I have tried to remain as objective as possible which is hopefully evident above. Any constructive criticism however is gladly welcome.

You can watch School Among Glaciers on YouTube by clicking here.


13 thoughts on “A Critical Review of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

  1. This is a very important critique of the film. The writer suggests that “for me, it would be untrue to portray or consume Lunana as an original piece of work, which many might, who are unfamiliar with the documentary from 16 years ago.”. From what has been very tactfully pointed out – I don’t think there is any question as to this truth. Those in the creative world who have been singled out for plagiarism have lost credibility, and rightfully so. The director of the film Lunana needs to set the record straight publicly so that the documentary makers are duly credited for the originality of their work. What the Lunana people have done is clearly more than “being inspired”.


  2. The acknowledgment was loud and clear to every article Pawo has interviewed and clearly credited in the movie. Please consider watching the movie and articles pawo has interviewed. This review is clearly impaired evident based and has no factual views. I urge author to watch the movie and carefully reflect the views.
    Yours Reader.


    1. I read the article written by Pawo on Facebook. He has got good arguments. But i still feel it is wise to watch both the movie and documentary-film before making a judgement. It will be fair that way i feel. Pawo has refuted certain points which is clear now. But other points will still remain unclear unless we watch the documentary. This i feel is a good discussion which shouldn’t be taken personally. I am grateful for both the director of Lunana and Rigsar for the review. Being a small country sometimes we take things too seriously and personally. I think space for criticism and discussions should always be present.


  3. It is a good review written objectively. I agree with the author that the movie and director should have made it loud and clear of the original docu-film from which the movie was adapted. Giving due credit to the original piece would have exhibited more qualities to the movie.


  4. It felt so liberating when you have expressed in such clarity whatever went thru my mind when I watched the movie. Thou I equally loved the recent movie, I could not help feeling the uneasiness in the stark similarity between the School Among Glaciers and Lunana film. However, nothing can beat the rawness of Sir Dorji Wangchuk’s docu-film which left me in choking tears when I watched it as a school kid. As the writer had mentioned, I felt there should have been some sort of acknowledgment to the original piece at the end of the movie. Thank you 🙂


  5. Speechlessly great work, perfectly contemplated the story, I really enjoyed and to be frank of the Bhutanese movies I have watched till date, this was the ‘Best’ and will never forget it. As I am a Bhutanese it really touched my heart and as I was watching, I just realized tears were rolling from my chicks…Thanks to Mr. Pawo for bringing up such great work and it is going to be an inspiration to rest of the the film makers in the country. Great work once again la….


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