Presented by the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities


As an elementary school teacher in the small island community of Lānaʻi, I felt an instant connection to director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM. Sent to the “the remotest school in the world,” the main character, Ugyen, struggles with the great dilemma of this generation: navigating globalization while remaining true to who we are and where we are from; and before that, finding our identity in a world where so many are displaced from their ancestral land, culture, and language. Ugyen is confronted with a choice: becoming a voice in an urbanized, global community, or remaining rooted in the dirt of his own country, fulfilling a small but important role, true to the traditional values espoused by his grandmother.

In his December 28, 2015 TEDx Talk, “Seeing the Sacred,” Pawo Choyning Dorji says, “. . .I like to capture images and stories that remind me, and connect me with my own inner sacredness, my own virtuous qualities.” LUNANA opens with one such image.

The wind heard travelling through a great expanse. An extreme wide shot of a vast mountain range. The dark, flowing black hair of a woman, her back to us. The mountain side echoing with the oldest of instruments: a single human voice.

For us in Hawaiʻi, the land is alive. The worldview of the kanaka ʻōiwi teaches us that akua are embodied by trees, plants, and clouds, by the sun at its zenith, by the sea. We learn from them that essential forces within the natural world are alive and conscious, and there is in fact a way we can speak to and be heard by this living environment.

After a long day of work on Lānaʻi, I have a simple practice. I step outside, cross the empty two lane “highway” behind my house, and climb up the hill of Pūlehuloa, where I can see the open plains of our caldera, and watch the kakehau mist settle in the lands below. I can speak words no one but the wind will hear and so connect to that sacredness within us all.

Just as we settle into our awe of this breathtaking opening shot, we’re yanked into the city. We see Ugyen for the first time fast asleep. Traffic, horns, and cars replace the wind.

In Pawo Choyning Dorji’s film, Ugyen is sent to Lunana as a teacher, but in the end, he is the one who needs to learn, and it is Lunana that helps him reconnect. There is something to be learned from a place like Lunana, a community where everyone can tell your story, where the arriving traveler may be greeted by the entire town.

On Lānaʻi, our youth grapple with the same things. They (as I do) obsess over their phones and like Ugyen do not even look up when greeted in the street. A family owned business is replaced by a sleek grocery store with polished wood floors; interpretive signs tell indigenous stories to visitors; and the remoteness and quiet that drew so many of us to Lānaʻi is now a shallow-focus advertising tool to draw Four Seasons guests. When I am old will Lānaʻi be so changed that I can no longer recognize it? And when that happens, will I still be able to remember the wisdom only small, remote communities know?

The subtitle of the movie, A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM is a suitable metaphor for this dilemma. Each day we are educated, and American ideals, culture, and language take the place of chants that speak to and are heard by the land. And we, like Ugyen, must carry this absurdity in our hearts, so we are left with more questions.
Should he move to a far-off place, can Ugyen carry with him the wisdom he learns in Lunana? Even as we become more adept at navigating a manmade environment, can we remember lessons that ring in the far-off mountains, a voice in the wind’s great expanse?

Simon Seisho Tajiri
SIMON SEISHO TAJIRI is thankful to belong to Lānaʻi, an island perfect in the calm.

This essay has been produced as part of the 2020 FILM FOR THOUGHT Program in partnership with the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities.