An Open Letter to Pawo Choying Dorji

Dear Pawo,

I have been following your posts on facebook responding to my review of your film that I had written almost a year ago after I saw it at Lugar theatre with my office mates. But before I get to the main point, I just wanted to let you know that despite my review which I tried my best to direct towards the film and not at you personally, and MOST DEFINITELY NOT your film crew, I was and still remain your fan! I hope you don’t find that strange or hard to believe, because I mean it with all honesty. I am a person who has always believed that the thorns on a rose have never diminished its beauty and that it is possible for both sentiments to coexist in this complex world we find ourselves navigating.

PHOTO: Oli Pritchard/Flickr

I got acquainted with you and your work, much like many of your other fans: from a distance. Your amazing gift at weaving together the art of photography with your own outlook on life to churn out beautiful narratives are a source of inspiration to us all. Even more amazing to witness has been your dedication at reviving The Turquoise Heart and reminding us that we need only look within ourselves to find the treasures that were revealed centuries ago but have been buried by our own stubborn hearts presently. Finally, the fruit of your unceasing effort which we shall all remember as Pema Lingpa Day is something I will always remember and cherish you for as a son of Bhutan myself.

Now, coming to the matter at hand, out of everything I read in your response, I was most disheartened to hear that my review was an ‘unnecessary obstacle … when Lunana … was submitted to the Oscars’ (in your own words). As someone who believes that we as Bhutanese don’t support and hold each other up enough, it was saddening for me to realize that my blog with a readership in only double-digits (back then), which I joke about often on my social media profile, was even seen and brought up by the review committee. Please accept my apologies. It was not for this reason that I wrote what I wrote. The reason actually has largely to do with a single question:

On what grounds do we value art?

Is it when it is honest and speaks directly to our hearts? Is it the amount of effort that goes into producing it – like our traditional painters grinding stones and leather for weeks just to get the pigment to paint with? Is it when it is able to bring to the forefront, our deep human realities and truths? Is it when it is able to spark a cultural dialogue? Is it when it is original? But didn’t Picasso, one of the greatest artists of the previous century say that “Good artists copy, Great artists steal”? What did he mean by this? Such were the questions in my mind when I wrote the review on Lunana, A Yak in the Classroom almost a year ago.

This starting question is important because with any piece of writing where you offer yourself to the readers as words on a page, the immediate question lurking in the reader’s mind is with what intention the writer writes. I usually find that the answers we give to this question as readers reflect more on the kind of person the reader is; If we are a fame-hungry person, we project this onto the writer and assume he must be writing for fame. If we are an emotional person, we assume the writer writes in a fit of emotion as well. On the contrary, if we are broad-minded, we suspend our assumptions (as stubborn as they may be) and try our best to let the words speak, unpolluted and truthfully. As to your reading of my review, I found it to be generally fair, giving credit where it is due, defending points which you felt needed elaboration or a deeper understanding and most wonderfully, not getting personal which can only be expected of a man like yourself in service of our precious Rinpoche; something that the rest of us can’t even imagine, let alone do.

Nevertheless, since the inquiry into facts and truths has always been an iterative process, I wanted to respond to some of the points that you raised. Responding to my first point on Lunana being shot at the “exact same location” you take pains to differentiate it by saying it is actually not shot in Lhedi but in Tshojong which you mention is an arduous four hour trek beyond Lhedi. However, my simple response is that, the selling point of the film doesn’t revolve around this minute dissection of the two villages which you have given much importance and elaboration, but rather on ‘Lunana’ as the setting. If you don’t believe me, just ask any of your audience if this dissection was ever an important element to their appreciation of the film; I can almost say with certainty that for almost all of us audiences, what was important and memorable is that it takes place in Lunana. For example, if someone asks me to exactly describe another person’s hair, I would probably say something like, “Oh, he has got long, silky hair” or “She has short, bowl-cut, brown hair” or even “He doesn’t have hair. He’s actually bald”. But it would be absurd if the same person tells me that I’ve misused the word ‘exact’ and says, “No, actually that person has 90,000 hair strands, ranging between 5 – 15cm”. We use words like ‘exact’ within the boundaries of its usefulness and context, isn’t it?

Regarding my claim that both School Among Glaciers and Lunana were shot using solar power, you mention that that’s simply not true. You mention that the documentary was shot with “an entire bag full of fully charged camera batteries” but as you well know (and so did I when I researched a bit more on this), battery life drastically reduces (to two-thirds or even as much as half!), the higher up you go in altitude and in sub-zero temperatures. Given that the documentary is almost an hour-long production, the claim you make about it being produced on a bag full of “fully charged batteries” seems stretched at best. Moreover, inquiring more into the production process of the documentary, I found out that solar power WAS used to charge the batteries because they simply did not last, although at a painstakingly slow pace back in 2004 with the much less developed solar power technology. Nevertheless, from your generous explanation of the production process, I am convinced that the scale of production WAS indeed at a whole new level as you assert! I offer my deepest acknowledgement of the obstacles overcome by your amazing team and remain in a state of warmth, after learning about all the humanitarian and philanthropic impact that the film was able to have on such an isolated village.

Photo by Mark Morgan

The next two points have to do with parallelisms that I found in the two projects as to the framing, angles and stylistic elements; In your post, you have given us an in-depth explanation of how the awe-inspiring images on the screen were ‘meticulously planned’ with ‘every scene, every character and every prop’ pre-meditated in a ‘year-long pre-production’. This attention to detail by you and Jigme Tenzing really shines through which is why this was the most impressive element of the film and I made mention of it in my previous review: “the cinematography in Lunana is incredible and … miles ahead of its time“.

On this topic you mention that you found the claim about the striking similarity confusing because “‘camera frame, angle and style’ is the one area where the two films are so strikingly dissimilar“. Needless to say, the fact that School Among Glaciers is a documentary, while Lunana is a film, necessitates some major differences which is what gives both projects their respective formats. They are not going to be an exact replica because they are not the same format. The former seeks to ‘document’ non-fictional reality, which means the filmmaker has less freedom to plan and get detail-oriented; while the latter seeks to ‘produce’ something that is creative in nature, giving the filmmaker more freedom to plan and execute. Therefore points regarding the framing, angle and style in the documentary being ‘not planned’, ‘handheld’, having ‘no dolly shots’, etc. are not so much points I was making but as I see it, just inevitable implications of producing a film instead of a documentary. Even if we watch films that were made after documentaries such as The Walk (2015) made after Man on Wire (2008) and Grey Gardens (2009) after the documentary by the same title from 1975, such differences (and even more) are inevitable because of their respective formats. When writing my review, I was hesitant to remark on this point fearing misunderstanding but I decided to express it anyway with the help of screen grabs to illustrate what I meant exactly. For this point, I feel the audience just needs to watch the two projects and then see for themselves if the films are similar or not in style and framing.

PHOTO: Ricardo Almeida

As to my third point regarding similarity in plot, you give us a picture into the reasons why you embarked on this project. You comment on your contribution to preserving ‘our culture and our spiritual traditions’ as well as the worrying trend of Bhutanese (especially capable teachers) seeking happiness and a sense of belonging in the ‘bright lights of modernization’ abroad, as you so beautifully put it. After that you also touch on how Lunana is about ‘discover(ing) what you seek in a place you never expected’, while School Among Glaciers is about the challenges of ‘a city teacher trying to instill the value of education to the villagers in Lunana’. However, I felt that you were explaining to us the motivation of producing Lunana, and not on the similarity of the plot line which is what gives momentum to the story. In fact on this point of divergence, I agree with you and had written a year ago about how the two projects were dissimilar:

“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”

And also,

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.

That’s why, I felt that you missed my point entirely on the plot and instead discussed about themes instead in your response. Just to elaborate, here are the points of convergence in the two projects, in addition to the ones I already mentioned in my earlier article:

  1. The bar scene discussing the protagonist’s posting to Lunana with his friends
  2. Buying the water-proof hiking boots
  3. The protagonist’s interaction with the government official before leaving to Lunana
  4. The local guide escorting the protagonist up to Lunana
  5. The repeated complaint of the protagonist about the difficulty of the journey
  6. The warmth & hospitality of the hosts on their journey up to Lunana
  7. Immersion of the protagonist in the traditional songs of the locals
  8. Hoisting of lung dhar at Gangla Karchung pass and education on taking refuge in the mountain deities
  9. The emphasis on the protagonist hoisting the National flag and singing the National anthem
  10. Arrival of the new school supplies
  11. Discussion on personal hygiene with students in a single file line
  12. Games and songs celebration outside the classroom; Classroom mood also become enthusiastic
  13. News of the coming winter that signals the protagonist about the reluctant departure
  14. Scene of the desolate classroom after the teacher has left
  15. Transformed protagonist who believes in the power of refuge as they travel back via Gangla Karchung pass

Defending your decision, you do mention that this sequence of event isn’t just something that is unique to the protagonist in the documentary but to all teachers that are posted at Lunana in Bhutan. Although I do see your point on this matter, I believe this doesn’t apply to a film, which isn’t something that is bound by the constraints of reality but rather is driven by the freedom in creativity. At least for me, what makes film valuable is its freedom and the license to transcend reality to create something that would otherwise not be entirely possible in our so-called real world. It is precisely on this point that I wrote, it merits being labelled as ‘adaptation’ and not simply ‘inspiration’. Of course we are talking about a matter of degree and not absolute black-or-white which is what makes it hard to say with ease that it is one way or another definitively. What was most worrisome for me as I asked my friends who had seen the film was that they genuinely believed Lunana to be completely original; they had no frame of reference to the documentary at all.

PHOTO: Silvision

Another important point you bring up is that the film is a product of many sources of inspiration and not just the documentary. You give acknowledgement to the teacher who put a yak in his classroom for the dung to be used for the fire, another who came up with the amazing innovation to build a black board and make chalks, the young girl whose dedication to stay with her mother inspired the character of Saldon, the yak herder who sacrificed his earnings on his daughter’s rain boots and Pem Zam who stole my heart as well to become the best actor in the entire film personally for me. You question, what you will tell all of these real people that you encountered and have taken inspiration from, if you acknowledge only School Among Glaciers?

My answer is just a heartfelt ‘kadrinche’;

and this would suffice because they shared their experience and reality with you on the basis of trust from one human to another. However the matter is different when we are considering creative products that are out in the public domain. This is also the reason why it is absurd to consider copyrighting a personal story that is just shared between two people but the discussion is changed entirely when you are talking about something as simple as a single word that people spend millions branding which become a creative output that gets put out to the public sphere.

Towards the end of your response, you also expressed how you felt that I didn’t research on ‘how and why’ you ‘had made Lunana‘ and that I had jumped into ‘conclusions’ and wrote ‘something that would end up being read by so many people’. This made me question myself as well; Did I indeed rush the writing process of the review? I watched Lunana when it finally returned home after much international success abroad during the first week of February 2020. I published my review of the film on 9th March, roughly a month afterwards. Within this timeline, I went back into my search history from that time period, thanks to the power of technology, to see if I had researched enough and came across this search history dated March 1, 2020. I had been thinking about writing the review ever since I had seen Lunana about a month earlier.

PHOTO: Screenshot of my personal search history circa. 1/3/20

Within this time period, I had looked at the following sources before I began writing my review, including a podcast where Namgay Zam interviewed you on Hello from Bhutan!:

Not in a single article or interview did I find a single mention of School Among Glaciers, either as inspiration or otherwise. In your response you do make mention of the opening at Bhutan premiere (which I acknowledged in my review) as well as a VICE article as evidence and say that you had mentioned the documentary; but the article came out more than half a year later after I had published my review of your film, so the VICE article didn’t exist at least when I was writing. I hope this detail into my writing process is somehow able to show you that as much as possible I had tried not to write rashly but had given it as much thought and consideration that I could afford, before I published it.

PHOTO: The Myth of Sisyphus by Ann Wuyts

Finally, making a full circle and coming back to the beginning of this letter about the reasons behind writing the review, in some ways my reasons lie beyond Lunana and encompass our Bhutanese society. Just as you have outlined the importance of preserving our culture, heritage and tradition as motivations for producing Lunana, I write against the backdrop of the general social attitude towards art, creativity and the examination of truth; which I presently find to be quite shallow, lukewarm and utterly lacking in courage. We are quick to offer our empty, elaborate applauses or hurl faceless accusations but just as quick to forget about it all and move on hungrily to the next object of infatuation. It is due to these reasons that, not just the review and this letter to you but the entire blog is in some small way, my commitment towards doing things a bit differently. You can see my About page, which was the first ever entry (or more appropriately an aspiration) in my blog as to why I even started blogging. I have not changed a single word on that first article till date!

In many ways, my experience of the Bhutanese society is one where we are all suffering from cultural dementia, quick to forget and trapped in a whirlpool of stagnation

We are so afraid of speaking our minds, so insecure in our incompleteness and so final with our harsh judgements on each other. I wonder if you feel like I do, that this is so ironic for a society supposedly guided by the wisdom of impermanence? Shouldn’t we be more like water instead? I have seen adults take life promises never to speak to each other because one person hurt another’s ego. I ask myself, isn’t Buddhism about taking the power away from the ego? Why do we find so much contradictions in the different facets of our lives?


On the contrary looking towards our exemplary leaders and masters, I have always observed that the journey towards discovering truth is an arduous one, fraught with challenges and leaps of faith. We must not expect it to be easy. What great piece of art hasn’t inspired epic battles of words? Has any truly precious wisdom ever come to us as easy as a dandelion pollen carried straight to our laps by the natural forces of the wind? I remain inspired by Lord Buddha’s leap of faith to renounce his kingdom, possessed by the need to find answers to his undying questions. As Buddhists in our country, I often feel we are oceans apart from the source in terms of how we think and live our lives. I wonder if you ever get this feeling about our country as well?

To conclude, I just hope that in some small part of you, you believe that a healthy discourse is an indispensable element to the deepening of any art, whether it is a film, a piece of writing, poetry, music or just any expression of the human spirit. I hope you believe that without some creative tensions, we shall never surpass our own limits and remain in a cultural and creative khorwa (cyclic existence). Even if we don’t agree on anything else, if we can agree on this last point, then my heart is content.

With respect and admiration,

Ngawang Rigsar Wangchuk
(Your Fan)


6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Pawo Choying Dorji

  1. Thank you Rigsar for such a thoughtful and calm response. The way you have written your article and this response shows clearly your qualities as a person. Pawo’s responses felt like a storm. It was difficult to read. I felt sorry for you too since the comments were quite harsh… but as someone commented above there are many for sure who kept silence but felt different from what is written in comments by Pawo’s fans.


  2. Interesting read! Happy to know our young people have such level of depth and understanding on the need for critical inquiry on the subject of art, and the maturity to engage in healthy debate without discounting the amazing work of team Lunana, which without any doubt is an amazing film. I believe they are not mutually exclusive. Such engagement, is also an indicator of growth toward an artistic and thinking society.


  3. You were gaslighted, to say the least, rallying up his supporters and devout followers of the sangha he represents into making you doubt your own intentions. Instead of focusing on the topic of whether his work was inspired, adapted or plagiarised, he goes at length with three lengthy posts about his charitable work, hardships faced by the crew and the logistic involved into emotionally guilt-tripping you for having an opinion. I wish the director had not deviated from the topic of discussion. It was quite exhausting to read, and his claims got lost in those lengthy posts, he did manage to get lots of admiration and words of encouragements for the hardships faced which I am sure he must have, but that wasn’t the point of contention.

    It was a wonderful movie, but I must admit after reading your blog posts I have personally become a big fan of you. For a young person like you to have such integrity, strength and not be swayed by popular argument and have faith in your own belief, is something very rare these days.

    I would love to meet you one day over coffee and pick your brain. Reading your blog was an absolute pleasure.



  4. I am so glad you made Mr. Choyning Dorji accept the truth that his movie was largely based on this very fine documentary “School Among Glaciers” which remains to date one of the most beautiful and honest documentaries to come out of Bhutan. What is a shame is that he was very defensive and unprofessional in his reply. Like many Bhutanese, I am very thankful to him for his generosity and for making Bhutanese culture known to many parts of the world. However, this should not be used as a justification to deflect tough questions.

    I hope people have not been too difficult on you. Just remember that there is likely a large silent majority who agrees with you and shares your views. Of course we respect Mr. Choyning Dorji and his work, however, his defensive response was in such poor taste.


  5. I am so glad you made Mr. Choyning Dorji accept the truth that his movie was largely based on this very fine documentary “School Among Glaciers” which remains to date one of the most beautiful and honest documentaries to come out of Bhutan. What is a shame is that he was very defensive and unprofessional in his reply. Like many Bhutanese, I am very thankful to him for his generosity and for making Bhutanese culture known to many parts of the world. However, this should not be used as a justification to deflect tough questions.

    I hope people have not been too difficult on you. Just remember that there is likely a large silent majority who agrees with you and shares your views. Of course we respect Mr. Choyning Dorji and his work, however his defensive response was in such poor taste.


  6. Such eloquence and well and just as I read your first piece on the objectivity of the why it was written and found it credible and relevant- I find this the same … good on you … good on both of you


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