Director: Pawo Choyning Dorji (Bhutan, China). Year of Release: 2020
Ugyen is in the fourth year of the 5-year training programme you need to follow to get a job as a teacher in Bhutan. The official taking his assessment meeting says he’s the least motivated student among the thousands on their payroll. She’s got a point – Ugyen is planning to leave for Australia, just as soon as he can fix a visa, where he’ll try to get some work as a singer.
As an attempt to impose some motivation onto Ugyen, for his final year he is assigned to a job in Lunana, a high-altitude village with just 62 inhabitants, which is an 8 day uphill hike from the nearest public transport. This is part of a government attempt to educate the whole of the population. For the first 3 days of the trek to the village there are local huts to sleep in. After that it’s tents only.
Facilities in Lunana are very basic. Ugyen’s accommodation is a wooden hut and the classroom doesn’t even contain a blackboard. The only electricity that they have is from intermittent solar power, which is not even enough to power the iPhone which is connected to the headphones which are permanently fixed on Ugyen’s head. He immediately says that he’s going back home. The villagers concur, but it will take a week to get the necessary donkeys to transport his stuff back.
Ugyen is stuck in the wooden classroom with a group of cute kids. Can you guess what’s going to happen next? Do you think he might reconsider? Will removing his headphones make him more aware of the sound of nature? Will Ugyen learn from the villagers, while they learn just as much from him? Will he turn out to be a good, motivated, teacher after all?
Ugyen meets Saldon, a young woman who is regarded to have the best voice in the village. The songs she sings are traditional, and Ugyen initially says he doesn’t listen to “that sort of stuff” (do you think he might change his mind?) She gives him a present – a yak which must sleep in the classroom as it’s cold outside. The gift may not be very romantic, but it’s practical, as yak shit is particularly useful if you want to start a fire.
I’m still waiting for the film where a dropout visits a strange community with different values to his own and decides that, on the whole, while they’re perfectly entitled to enjoy their own religious traditions and folk songs, he’s actually quite happy with his old materialist atheism and rock music. Where he discovers that the reason why he wasn’t motivated to teach is that he simply isn’t a very good teacher. This isn’t that film.
I don’t want to be overly cynical. The intended message of the film – that human beings need to interact more with each other, and that rampant capitalism isn’t necessarily the best way of running society – is one that I share. I’m just not sure that it’s very effective at meeting its objectives. There’s something oberlehrer-ish about it – a word which is difficult to translate, but it implies someone who thinks they know what’s good for you better than you do yourself.
As if to demonstrate this point, today’s film showing was attended by a group of hippy parents and about half a dozen young girls, of a similar age to the pupils in the film who learnt to idolise their teacher. What could be more educational for these girls than a subtitled film which showed them if only they tried hard at school they would achieve contentment?
What actually happened is that as soon as the popcorn ran out, the girls got very bored, very quickly. They chatted amongst themselves. They stood up, sat down, then stood up again, eyes on the way out. They played with their phones. Every so often, a parent came across and tried to shift their attention to the worthy film on the screen in front of them, but they were having none of it.
As someone in the next seat (yes, the cinemas are supposed to have social distancing but that depends on people sitting in their allocated seats), I guess I should have been annoyed at the disruption, but I was 100% on their side. Their behaviour showed clearly who the film was really made for – not the young minds which were supposed to learn an Important Lesson, but for their smug mothers and fathers, keen to go through the performative acts of Good Parenting.
For all the apparent liberalism of the film’s politics, it contained a deeply conservative streak. The ultimate message was not that you should embrace other cultures, but that you should do what you’re told. The fact that the plot was entirely predictable helped feed this conservatism. Some reviews have called the film “charming”. What they mean that it doesn’t scare the horses when we really need more disruption. Which is why the girls in the cinema reacted entirely appropriately.