On a mission to untie the knots

On a mission to untie the knots

When Pawo Choyning Dorji made “Lunana – A Yak in the Classroom’s” submission to the Oscars, Bhutan was not there on the Oscars’ database. Neither was Dzongkha in the language database. However, the film was a historic journey, not just for Pawo, but for Bhutan, too. And he achieved national recognition becoming the youngest to receive the Druk Thuksey (Heart Son of Bhutan) award from His Majesty the King on December 17, 2022.

Today, Pawo’s film “The Monk and the Gun” has been nominated by Bhutan for the awards. Further, as an Oscar nominee and recipient of the Druk Thuksey, he has become a towering figure, an inspiration for many budding Bhutanese film makers. How does Pawo look at it and handle it?

“In a small place like Bhutan, the need for examples to be set, the need to pave the path forward is there,” Pawo says, adding he is not saying he is that person. “There are many who have done this before and one name that comes to mind is Dzongsar Jambyang Khyentse Rimpoche, who by the making of “The Cup” and “Travelers and Magicians” really dared the untiers of knots of Bhutan to dream of a world that goes beyond Bhutan. Filmmakers like myself are treading on the path that was set by Rimpoche.” 

Nonetheless, as an Oscar nominee and the youngest one to receive the Druk Thuksey, Pawo underlines that he takes with a great sense of responsibility “honors attached” to his name. Pawo also reiterates that the Oscar nomination is not an individual achievement or recognition and that it is an award bestowed by the Academy for who he represents. “His Majesty said that I am the youngest to receive the Druk Thuksey, which represents and is a clear indication of the importance attached to the youth of Bhutan,” he says, adding “he works hard to represent Bhutan, Bhutanese, our culture, spirituality and tradition.”

On the differences between “Lunana” and the current film, Pawo says that every film he makes is his film school. “They say that the first film of a director is the closest reflection of his heart and Lunana was that. With “The Monk and The Gun”, I wanted to take Lunana and build upon that,” Pawo adds. He further elaborated that many people said that “Lunana” has just one character and was a film with a very simple theme. On the contrary, “The Monk and the Gun” has a multiple storyline. It has about four story-lines and nine characters.

Reminiscing his childhood days at his grandfather’s farm in Deothang, eastern Bhutan, Pawo says those moments injected within him a love for storytelling. “I never went to film school. When I grew up at Deothang in my grandfathers’ farm we used to sit around, the fire in the stove burning, and listening to stories. Story telling became an important part of my life.”

And Pawo adds that the current film “represents the Bhutan where he grew up.” “It was a time when TV and internet came up; when the thankas made from calendars of the Bank of Bhutan and others were replaced by David Beckam and Rambo, the time when the innocence of Bhutan was starting to fade,” he says with nostalgia.  

He further adds that he was not very sure about “The Monk and The Gun’s outcome.” “I feel very blessed to know that the film has had a favorable opinion amongst film critics and the audience. And I am grateful for that.”

In an interview with Film Companion, Pawo has mentioned that storytelling is part of the Bhutanese culture. “We say please untie a knot for me. So the art of storytelling has the purpose of freezing, liberating and untying.”

On inspiring others, he has said that Lunana gave the younger generation the courage to dare to dream. “Lunana gave hope to the thousands of filmmakers, the thousands of artists, the thousands of untiers of knots all over the world who don’t have support, who don’t have funds, who are struggling to tell their stories and many times questioning themselves. Is it worth it? Am I doing the right thing?” 

Now, they would think: “If ‘Lunana’ can make it, if Pawo can do it, why not us?”

He also shares that every time he meets people and tells them that he is from Bhutan, people say “you must be very happy.” “I say that we are a very poor country; we are one of the least developed countries in the world. And unfortunately, when you are living in a poor country in a materialistically driven world, it does not equate to happiness. But I can say with full of pride that I come from a country that prides to be happy.”

He underlines that our Kings, “who are our guiding lights,” work to ensure that all Bhutanese are happy. “Happiness of the self is connected to the casual connections around us. We have the mandate to maintain 65% as forest cover and the environment is important for happiness.”

According to Pawo, Bhutan is a very small nation with so much to share with the rest of the world. “I hope that films can do that,” he adds. 

Ugyen Tenzin from Thimphu