In the land of Gross National Happiness

A documentary from Bhutan explores the generation gap and changing gender perceptions as society adapts to modern times


As one of the last countries in the world to introduce television in 1998, and internet a year later, Bhutan has a whole new generation of young adults who have grown up with access to movies, football matches, and Facebook.

The Buddhist-majority country holds its culture and traditions dear, and parents expect to pass these values down to their children who are having difficulty adjusting to the two worlds.

The Next Guardian (2017) is a new documentary that explores this contrast between traditionalist values and modernist changes in Bhutan and questions the ideals of the country’s Gross National Happiness slogan.

Directed by Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó, the feature-length documentary follows a teen brother and sister, Gyembo and Tashi, who love soccer and their phones.

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Their father runs a monastery and believes that their culture must be passed on to future generations to preserve it. Gyembo is studying in a modern English school, loves football, and has crushes on some girls in his class. But he is suddenly expected to become a monk.

Bhattarai came up with this true story when he heard about Bhutan’s first female football camp. He spent six months in the camp and finally came across Tashi who looked and acted like a boy and wanted to become a football player.

However, after meeting her family and Gyembo, he changed his focus to show the widening generational gap in Bhutan by documenting one family’s story. “We saw it as an opportunity to reflect on how Bhutan is changing,” Bhattarai told an online audience during an online screening of his documentary by Screen Southasia organised by Himal Southasian, which also holds the biannual Film Southasia documentary festival.

“Screen Southasia was born out of our love for South Asian documentaries and Film Southasia’s massive archive of documentaries and network of alumni,” says Alok Adhikari, Assistant Director of Film Southasia.

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Screen Southasia hosts monthly online shows of compelling documentaries from the region, including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka -- a diverse range of films, both classic and new, that showcase the unique cultures, histories and perspectives of the Subcontinent. Screenings are followed by Q&A sessions  with the filmmaker, editor, camera person to better understand the craft of filmmaking, funding and marketing aspects. 

June’s selected The Next Guardian effectively captures the transition of Bhutan to the digital age as Gyembo, Tashi, and their friends use smartphones, watch football tutorials, take photos, and talk to friends on Facebook. It also portrays how Gyembo is not different from young people anywhere else in the world today. In contrast, their father prepares local dishes, does everyday rituals, performs traditional dances, and is passionate about Buddhist teachings.

With its rich cinematography, the film uses static wide shots to portray the scenic beauty of Bhutan and to showcase the rhythm of everyday rural life in the country. Key to Bhattarai’s filming style is not to use a lot of movement to capture the real, authentic rituals of the family with cinéma vérité technique.

The cinematography is unobtrusive, and the characters ignore the film-makers and go about without being at all self-conscious. The blurs the dimension between film and reality.

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“Sometimes, I waited for hours observing their day-to-day interactions. Some clips were possible only after the protagonists opened up as themselves, forgetting the camera,” Bhattarai explains.

The film delves into the traditional South Asian dynamic where a child cannot say no to parents and is expected to carry out their wishes. The father constantly tries to convince Gyembo of the advantages of becoming a monk and the importance of preserving heritage. Gyembo has different dreams, celibacy not being one of them, yet he never actively protests.

“Since I grew up near Bhutan, I wanted to tell this story,” says Bhattarai. Tashi has her own arc in the story, dressing up and cutting her hair like a boy, and she is mostly drawn to masculine behaviour.

She is passionate about being a football player, and the film shows a wonderful acceptance of Tashi’s gender expression by her family and society at large. Her father, in line with his strong Buddhist beliefs, sees Tashi as a girl born with the spirit of a boy from her past life and calls it natural. And after seeing movie, Gyempo’s father postponed sending him to the monastery.

The Next Guardian was the first documentary film many people in Bhutan watched in a cinema for the first time. It won the Best Documentary at the Zsigmond Vilmos Film Festival in 2018, and was nominated for the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Films like The Next Guardian highlight dynamic cultures and their unique ways of relating to the world. However, financing is difficult, and filmmakers often have to rely on producers from the West. 

Says Arun Bhattarai: “What this means is that rather than producing a relatable film for the local audience, sometimes you have to make it relatable to a Western audience.”

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The next Screen Southasia event will be a film from Bangladesh.

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