Surrounded by snow-capped peaks and lush forests, wrapped in wonder and mystery is the Kingdom of Bhutan. The fast-developing nation of approximately 700,000 people lies in the heart of the Himalayas and is currently in the midst of expanding its newly emerging film industry.
Bhutan is a land-locked country in the Himalayas.
In the year of 2000, the Bhutanese film industry was revolutionized for the better, experiencing a surge in domestic film and music video production, incorporating aspects of Indian cinema and the country’s own rich cultural influences to create entertaining and captivating stories on screen. Over the years, the industry has managed to not only even out the oversaturation of foreign films and songs in the market, but also encourage many of its youth to pursue the art of filmmaking, to finally tell their stories, to tell Bhutan’s stories. I was able to speak to one of many such young storytellers, Ugyen Phuntsho Rabgay, one of the youngest Bhutanese film directors attending the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.
As we sat down, the aspiring filmmaker began with his personal journey. Rabgay entered the world of filmmaking during the ripe days of high school. He never expected he would become a filmmaker. In fact, he had always thought of growing up to be a doctor. However, Rabgay found himself more and more involved with the arts and performance community at his school, until finally, people began to ask if he wanted to pursue a career in acting.
“I’ve personally never thought about it myself,” Rabgay commented, stating that it was a while before his curiosity in the arts was finally piqued.
“But then I realized, “Okay. Let’s do something like that. Not as an actor, but instead as a director.””
Rabgay’s career began with him filming and posting short music videos with friends on YouTube. These were the first ever music videos in Bhutan, and many across the nation were enamored, and as a result, domestic popularity surged.
“Everybody [in Bhutan] loves music videos now,” Rabgay jokingly added. Rabgay has since developed his craft and is now at Cannes with his feature film, The Door, a tale of two illiterate men, Khotsa and Youngba, who have stumbled upon a lottery win, much to their surprise. The film follows the two close friends as they rush to the capital city of Bhutan, through many obstacles, to claim the prize for their ticket, which they had inadvertently stuck to their door. The film is a sequel and remake of a previous Bhutanese film from 2006, exploring the cultural depth and simplicity of rural life in Bhutan, as well as human happiness and what it means to be happy through drama, romance and comedy.
“Bhutanese storytelling really hinges upon Gross National Happiness,” Rabgay explained. “Our programs, the films we make, everything we do. It all relates back to it. And that’s what makes us unique.”
Bhutan is a country that prides itself on being the world’s happiest country, in line with its developmental guiding principle of Gross National Happiness. Bhutan’s film industry has contributed greatly to the preservation and promotion of Bhutanese tradition and culture in the modern age, one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness alongside good governance, sustainable socio-economic development and environmental conservation.
However, the film industry is not a complete Shangri La. Despite its success, filmmakers still struggle to break into the global tiers due to a shortage of technological expertise and equipment, as well as a lack of financial resources.
Rabgay has also experienced his own fair share of obstacles in his budding career. “My father’s background in film has truly helped. But even then, I still had to face a lot of difficulties, as his son, as a young filmmaker. Nobody takes you very seriously in the beginning, especially when you’re very young, when you’re fresh and just starting out. So it’s been a tough process.”
Yet, there is a silver lining to the burdens that hold back the newest generation of Bhutanese filmmakers. Rabgay reassuringly added, chuckling to himself, “often, when you’ve completed a film project and shown what you can do, and the people like it, you feel like a hero. It’s beautiful.” Filmmaking is a long and at times frustrating process, but the conclusion of a film project is well worth it. Rabgay implores other aspiring filmmakers to go after their dreams in spite of the struggle, and to never give up.
“I also think it’s important to expose oneself to other cultures and other experiences, to go out there. Even with other Bhutanese filmmakers, it’s important to expand your experience,” Rabgay concluded with a warm grin. “I’ve come out to Cannes, to this huge, beautiful world. And it’s amazing. I’ve learned a lot from the experience. The future is bright.”