The Elephant in the (Class)room
By CEID Blogger, on 4 October 2023
By Rebecca Greenway
‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ (2019) is an Oscar nominated film set in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. On the surface, it is a beautiful piece of cinema with authentic acting, stunning scenery and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack but it also raises questions about schooling, migration and notions of development.
The film follows Ugyen, a talented singer and young teacher who is drafted to Lunana, a hamlet located eight days walk away from Thimpou, where he lives with his grandmother. An urbanite, Ugyen is reluctant to relinquish his dream of migrating to Australia to become a star. As he sheds his leather jacket and his iPod runs out of charge, layers of globalization are peeled back and he is confronted with the rites, customs and traditions of his heritage, all of which he considers parochial and backwards. The primary school he has been sent to is synonymous with many rural, remote schools with no blackboard, electricity, running water, pens or paper. Western audiences might hark for this ‘simpler’ way of life, as the humble authenticity of the villagers undoubtedly add to the charm of the film. However, the film refuses to fall into the trap of portraying a rural idyll without exploring the challenges of teaching and living in such a remote place. Collecting yak dung to stoke a fire and gathering the harvest before the onset of winter are entwined in the fabric of their existence. The forced closure of the school during the winter months reminds the viewer that the community is deeply connected to the environment and dependent on seasonal changes. The bucolic pastoralism that might have been portrayed is replaced with the realities of alcoholism, youth unemployment and hard to reach communities becoming forgotten and left behind. All of which presents a bittersweet rurality.
The happiness myth?
Bhutan is renowned for embracing the ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) development model, as the viewer is aptly reminded in the opening scene, with the words ‘Gross National Happiness’ written on the back of Ugyen’s t-shirt. Attracting interest from the world stage, Bhutan has captured the imagination of many as a kingdom which ensures the well-being of the citizens who live in harmony with their pristine environment. The GNH model rests on four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, the preservation and promotion of culture and environmental conservation. There are nine key domains, measured through 33 indicators. They include ambitious targets of providing electricity and education for all. Furthermore, an inclusive approach to recognising diverse learning needs is made explicit in the Educational Blueprint, demonstrating a step away from homogenizing education systems.
As a result of significant progress made in reducing poverty and sustaining economic growth, Bhutan is set to graduate from the least developed country (LDC) list in 2023. However, scratching beneath the surface cracks emerge. Despite efforts to provide vocational training and entrepreneurship, youth unemployment is high. An overreliance on hydroelectric power to stimulate economic growth and lack of investment in diversifying the private sector equate to limited job prospects. Pull factors, such as seeking employment overseas are witnessed in the steep rise of outward migration. This leads to a false dichotomy where the older generation Bhutanese might naively question why anyone would want to leave ‘the happiest country on earth?’
The grass is always greener
Imagined futures, opposed to static realities, are features of migration. This is captured throughout the film, as a sense of belonging and longing for something else, is in constant flux. Longing for his grandmother’s cooking is symbolized through the wooden bowl Ugyen eats out of upon his arrival in Lunana. As he dreams of migrating to Australia, he clings on earnestly to the pamphlet showing pictures of Sydney Opera house. Ironically, the pamphlet symbolically loses its original significance as he scribbles the lyrics to a traditional folk song on the back. Each time he moves, he leaves something or someone behind. Finally, once he arrives in Australia, the reality of working in a dingy bar, singing commercial songs during a noisy happy hour is a far cry from his imagined future of becoming a famous singer. Just as Ugyen’s physical journey exposes him to diverse settings, cultures and people, his intrinsic values and ideas evolve. The juxtaposing final shot of Bondi Beach to the bar where Ugyen is being paid to sing background music shows the trappings of a commodified vision of Western success.
Just as the audience is left wondering what Ugyen’s future holds, we are also left pondering the fate of the Lunana villagers and the educational provision of the children without a teacher. The way of life for rural communities is under threat. Glacial melt due to rising temperatures leads to landslides, contributing to further isolation. Pastoralists that rely on seasonal predictability will be forced to confront the challenges of climate change. Future investment in infrastructure through the development of roads will allow better access to schools and yet will engender changes to a rural way of life. Bhutan already contends with increasing rural to urban internal migration as people seek employment opportunities, access to quality education and healthcare. The challenges of safeguarding the basic needs for all are complex and manifold. This tightrope of harnessing equitable, ethical growth that respects the planetary boundaries and ensures the wellbeing for all is an ongoing challenge.
Schooling without teaching?
‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ is above all a film about development, globalization, modernity, migration and the teaching crisis. Ugyen is symbolic of a youth disenchanted with the idea of being a teacher. Retention, recruitment and attrition rates reflect this trend globally. Although there is consensus that teaching is a valuable and honourable profession that ‘touches the future,’ the teacher gap cannot be filled without societal transformation.
As a teacher, I hope for a revalorisation of the profession through improved pay and working conditions, ongoing support and professional development. However, I am also aware that there is no silver bullet to the acute teacher shortage. Country and local contexts cannot be ignored and neither can other realities, often financial, such as the large proportion of education budgets which are required for teacher salaries. Finally, measures such as fast-track recruitment programmes might fill an urgent need for bodies in the classroom but they do not address the systemic shift required to upgrade educational systems. After all, when it comes down to it, “every education system is only as good as the teachers who provide hands -on schooling.”