With no film industry to speak of, and limited funds to make a movie in one of the most remote places on earth, young Bhutanese director-writer Pawo Choyning Dorji pulled off a miracle with his first feature, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, which came out of nowhere to get an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) in 2019. It was a charmer of a movie set in a village in Bhutan with no connection to the outside world and where a young teacher must decide whether he wants to stay and teach the kids or follow his dreams to Australia.
If I were a betting man — which I am — I would venture to say that with his second film The Monk and the Gun, which just had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival this weekend and goes on to Toronto next week, will see the director back at the Dolby Theatre come next March. No sophomore jinx here, this one is even better than his first, and that is saying something.
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Set in 2006, modernization finally has arrived in the Kingdom of Bhutan just as the longtime king has abdicated in order to bring democracy to perhaps the last place on the planet not even to have television or the internet. Now they do, and a mock election is being planned in order to train the innocent residents of a village there where religion remains more popular than politics on just how to vote. However at the same time as the mock election day a local Monk is planning a secret ceremony that just might shake things up. That is where the “Gun” in the film’s title comes into play as the Lama has requested a Monk to bring him two guns. Concurrently however an American gun enthusiast (Harry Einhorn) arrives in the rural village in order to find and buy an ultra rare Civil War rifle that has been traced to remote land. A local resident acts as his guide and leads him to the Monk who refuses to take the very generous amount the American offers, but does agree to sell the rifle for a lesser price much to the buyer’s surprise.
Complications arise though when that deal blows up before the American and his guide can bring back the cash, and the gun in question is now on its journey to the High Lama. Meanwhile election supervisors have set up a choice between the Red, the Blue, and the Yellow for the clueless locals whose biggest previous issue seems to be adhering to the Gross National Happiness. Red (read GOP) stands for industrial progress, Blue (read Democrats) stands for Equality and Justice, and Yellow stands for Preserve the past. Even trying to “register” the citizens becomes a problem as no one seems to even know an official birth date for themselves. The campaign nevertheless is on and it slyly and wryly turns out to see Bhutan standing in also as a satirical look at current American democracy, the divide of the electorate, and the obsession with the second Amendment.
Dorji presents all of this with a gentle satirical jab at American democracy, but shows the difficulties of changing a society whose pure and lovely innocence stands in the way of a political revolution, even as they are also just discovering James Bond and The Spice Girls.
Producers of the film which is looking for American distribution, and which in my book is one of the two or three best movies at this year’s Telluride, are Stephanie Lai, Jean-Christophe Simon, Hsu Feng.
Here is an interview I did yesterday here in Telluride with its writer and director Pawo Choyning Dorji.
DEADLINE: What Inspired you to make The Monk and the Gun?
PAWO CHOYNING DORJI: I have always been so intrigued about how Bhutan became a modern nation. I was a teenager growing up and lived abroad and would come back to Bhutan and I could see how the outside world was and how different Bhutan was. My father was a diplomat I would be watching MTV, drinking Coke, going out to McDonalds. But every time I had to go to Bhutan I have to know for that few months I would have no McDonalds, I would have no cartoons. I was like the outsider going in and realizing what it was, but many teens in the town did not know what they were missing. I actually never went to film school. I studied political science so because of the I was very intrigued about how Bhutan became Democratic. That mock election in the film is a true story. We had a mock election and the Yellow Party (to preserve the King’s authority) did win. I found it so strange that, here the people were being given this gift of democracy and didn’t want it. They still wanted him to rule, and I thought it was such a unique story to tell for the rest of the world . What really convinced me to make the film was that after Lunana, I was stuck in Bhutan during the pandemic taking part in a project working with the Monks and the Lamas and they were burying weapons in the foundation. And I asked them why and they told me in Bhutan it is all about symbolism.
DEADLINE: What prepared you for the political aspects of this story, especially looking at America without specifically saying it?
DORJI: I Studied Political science in the U.S. That was what my undergraduate degree was. I never went to film school. So I witnessed a lot about democracy in America , you know the Blue and the Red States, the second amendment…I hope as many Americans can see this as possible.
DEADLINE: How did you get this wonderful cast together? Are they professional actors?
DORJI: Mostly working with non-professionals. I didn’t even have a Lama until one week before the shoot. The Lama I wanted was an actual Lama and he was going to his monastery so I couldn’t get him. I went to the actual location because I needed to get permission to shoot from the village Lama so I went to see him and there he was sitting in his room with his white beard, his deep voice, and these smoky eyes. I thought ‘gee he would be perfect for the film’. I asked him, but he said ‘well, I have to go to my cave’, but I asked if he could just wait one more month and help me make this film, and he agreed. He was just being himself.
DEADLINE: In terms of the logistics of making films in these pretty remote regions, was it easier this time?
DORJI: I think by American standards it is still very far from that. If you ever visit Bhutan you will realize we don’t have any film equipment. No cameras, no lighting. For Lunana I had no choice because it was such a long hike so we just took one camera and batteries, no lights even. But for this we were two days drive from the main city so we were able to bring cameras and lights, but because we don’t have any film industry all the cameras , the lights, they had to be brought in from India and on the road for a week in order to get to the location. Actually when I rolled into Telluride I felt like the whole layout mirrored that location. How efficient we make our film in the mountains and then we come to Telluride where everything resembles that. Maybe this village is Telluride 200 years ago.
DEADLINE: Incredibly you got an Oscar nomination first time out, and it was the first ever for Bhutan as well. What was that experience like?
DORJI: Lunana’s journey is unlike any other as you might imagine. It was my first film. I had no international agent, no distributor, no producers, just myself. And me and a couple of my friends we take our cameras way up there and we make a movie using actors who not only had never acted, never watched a film, never experienced what a lightbulb is, so to make a movie like that and have that journey from being an absolute unknown to skyrocketing through the festival awards and being shortlisted for an Oscar when we had zero PR. was different. We had no American distribution. We had no publicist and we were shortlisted. It was only then that people said ‘oh you need to take this more seriously. I said ‘okay what am I supposed to do?’ They said you need to hire people, get distribution. It was an amazing experience, and when I came out to the Oscars, there was an international directors Q&A with the members, and I told the members there are thousands of filmmakers all around the world and they are struggling. And one question that we always ask ourselves is ‘is it worth it? Is it worth it doing this? Are we doing the right thing, you know flogging ourselves to make this film, will anyone watch it? I questioned that myself every time I was in the mountains charging my camera with batteries, I said ‘is it worth it? And the fact that this unknown film that you, the Academy members had given this opportunity to us , it is a statement to all the filmmakers like myself who are struggling and asking themselves the question. You are telling them ‘yes, make the film. You have a chance. Lunana has a chance. It is an inspiring story.
Title: The Monk and the Gun
Festival: Telluride Film Festival
Sales agent: UTA (America), Films Boutique (International)
Director-screenwriter: Pawo Choyning Dorji
Cast: Tandin Wangchuk, Pema Zangpo Sherpa, Tandin Sonam, Kelsang Choejey, Deki Lhamo, Harry Einhorn, Choeying Jatsho, Tandin Phubz, Ugyen Dorji
Running time: 1 hr 47 min
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