“The Monk and The Gun” – Uniquely Bhutanese Yet Universal

“The Monk and The Gun” – Uniquely Bhutanese Yet Universal

It won the Audience Choice Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival, received Honorable Mention for Best Film and Best Cinematography at the Woodstock Film Festival, and is currently in competition for Best Film at the Rome Film Festival in Italy and the Mumbai Film Festival in India. Yes, we are talking about Pawo Choyning Dorji’s ‘The Monk and The Gun,’ which is now being screened at the Lugar Theatre in Thimphu, Bhutan.

For any filmmaker, the ultimate goal is the Oscars. However, for some, there is a more profound purpose beyond the Oscars alone. What does Pawo aim to achieve with this film, besides winning the Oscar?

“I made the film for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to show the world that there is, and continues to be, a society like Bhutan—a society built on the pursuit of happiness, where unwavering devotion to the Buddha dharma and loyalty to the monarchs define our way of life,” Pawo says. He also wanted to depict Bhutan’s transition as it looked for a place in the world. “I believe this story can resonate with people worldwide, especially considering the current global landscape. The world has become politically divided, and the value of innocence has been forgotten. This film serves as a reminder of the beauty of innocence and challenges the misconception that innocence equates to ignorance.”

For Bhutan, Pawo had a different purpose in mind. “I want the Bhutanese to understand, especially now, as we face another significant period of change and transition and economic challenges, that we must come together as one nation.” Pawo hopes that the film will help the Bhutanese understand their roots and where they come from, which will, in turn, guide their future path. He highlights that Bhutan was the last country in the world to be connected to television and the internet and that the Monarch willingly gave up power for the transition to democracy. “Understanding the context of this historic shift will make us appreciate the gift of democracy even more,” he explains.

Expanding on the loss of innocence, Pawo recalls his childhood in Thimphu, where he used to walk to school, with painted or hanging phalluses adorning many houses. “Today, this cultural symbol is disappearing, symbolizing the loss of innocence in Bhutanese society,” he observes. He points out that the phallus is meant to break down inhibitions but, sadly, as Bhutan modernizes, people feel embarrassed by it, paradoxically inhibiting their openness.

How does Bhutan’s Youngest Heart Son feel about the film’s current status and achievements?

“What more could a filmmaker ask for when Her Majesty the Queen herself graces the film’s premiere? We are deeply honored, especially since this marks Her Majesty’s first public appearance since the birth of Gyalsem,” Pawo says. He emphasizes that Bhutanese people, in New York, Vancouver, and Toronto, have come out dressed in traditional attire (gho and kira) to support the film, uniting Bhutanese communities worldwide. “It’s heartwarming to see a film bringing Bhutanese people together,” he remarks.

How did the idea for this film originate, and how did Pawo manage to encompass various aspects of Bhutanese culture in a relatively short time?

Pawo emphasizes the importance of being a keen observer to be a good storyteller. “Whenever I observe certain things, I contemplate how they can be woven together into a narrative.” Crediting Dzongsar Jambyang Khentse Rimpoche, his teacher and guide, Pawo mentioned that during the pandemic, he spent time in Bumthang, where he witnessed the lams (monks) burying toy guns while constructing the Pema Lingpa Chorten. He was captivated by the symbolism of this act, representing the transformation of hatred, aggression, and suffering into peace within Bhutanese culture.

Although he never attended film school, Pawo believes that a good film requires a clear message, theme, and storyline. Every element, from dialogue to props and characters, should drive the storyline forward. This approach, combined with his keen observation, enabled him to craft the film effectively.

What about the film’s characters and their symbolism?

Pawo explains that he has many monk friends, and he noticed that they all celebrated their birthdays on January 1st. This detail has been meticulously incorporated into the film.

Tashi, the monk sent on a quest to find a gun, represents unwavering dedication, loyalty, and the sacred master-disciple bond, which he believes is fading.

Tshomo, a typical Bumtap farmer and woman, embodies the feminine energy of Bhutan, often the silent strength behind Bhutanese families. Pawo explains that in Bhutanese families, fathers may appear outwardly dominant, but the mother plays a pivotal role in the end. Tshomo reflects this role and emerges as a protective Bhutanese mother when her inner circle or child is threatened. This choice underscores the importance of women in Bhutanese society.

On the other hand, Choying represents a person lost in the transition, lacking confidence as everything changes in an evolving world. He is uneducated and concerned about his future. Benji, the guide, symbolizes the new Bhutan, ambitious and embracing Westernization, seeing the transition as an opportunity.

The film also showcases various elements of Bhutan, with Buddhism as its foundation. All the characters are interwoven, reflecting the interconnectedness of Bhutanese society.

Discussing the power of art, Pawo emphasizes the universality of Bhutanese culture. He encourages Bhutanese artists to create work that is genuinely Bhutanese but can resonate with a global audience. He also notes that, at its core, the film touches on universal themes, including the issue of guns.

Pawo recalls an interesting encounter when the film was screened in Telluride, where a member of the National Rifle Association of America watched the film. He was initially concerned about her reaction but was pleasantly surprised when she found it to be one of the best films she had seen. The film’s intention is not to take sides but to allow the audience to interpret its themes.

Regarding the pressure he felt, Pawo acknowledges that making “Lunana” was relatively simple because he knew what he was offering to the audience and what to expect. In contrast, “The Monk and the Gun” made him feel more vulnerable, given the significant investment of effort, resources, and time. He was concerned about potential criticism but is pleased with the overwhelmingly positive reception.

Pawo also discusses the challenge of handling high expectations, especially as the stakes were higher with this film due to its success. He stresses that everything, from the crew to the resources, was on a larger scale, increasing the pressure.

On Bhutanese films, Pawo suggests that filmmakers must understand the market and be pragmatic. He believes that Bhutanese stories should incorporate universal values and themes while making the most of their unique Bhutanese elements. In his view, this approach can help Bhutanese cinema thrive.

What’s next for Pawo?

“I’m drawn to a particular Indian book and considering it. However, there’s still a part of me that feels I need to do more for Bhutan,” he reveals. While he has received scripts from around the world, his heart remains in Bhutan, and he expresses his commitment to continue working for his homeland.

Having set a benchmark and potentially aiming for higher goals, how does Pawo feel?

“When ‘Lunana’ was nominated, I told Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche that I was scared. If I’m nominated for my first film, it raises expectations to such a level that there’s nowhere to go but down. I don’t know about ‘The Monk and The Gun’; it’s too early to predict where it will go. However, I hope it doesn’t raise expectations further, as a higher pedestal would make any potential fall even more challenging,” Pawo humorously reflects.

One clear message from the film is that Bhutan can be the heart of a story, with the world as its stage, and these two aspects can harmonize beautifully. The film demonstrates that Bhutanese stories can resonate with hearts worldwide.

Ugyen Tenzin from Thimphu