We can be the best, if we believe in it

Over the past few days, I delivered two guest lectures to two groups of youth. The first ones were newbies from my former organisation, BBS, brought together for a training by journalist Namgay Zam. The second group was a class of mass communication students at the Royal Thimphu College with Prof. Nithil Dennis. Both the groups were interested in documentary filmmaking. For the context, I directed some 30 documentaries between 2002 and 2010, three of which made it big in the international festival circuit.   

I am glad that I accepted the invitations because I found two young, energetic, and motivated groups, who, if they want to, can take BBS and Bhutan to the next level in films and documentaries. They gave me hope in these rather confusing times.

I shared what is not there in the books, manuals, or YouTube. In other words, my approach to making documentaries, and what worked for me. I also elaborated on how I switched from engineering to documentaries, and how arts shaped me or reshaped me. I shared my tips on how to conceive a story, what elements are the most important for me, how I write the scripts, how I use of pre-credits, time lapse and music and how I paced everything. 

Most importantly, I invited them and motivated them to think big, believe in themselves, and push harder. I focussed on three key messages.

Don’t be a just-pass!

As an academic now, I have had the opportunity to assess and observe students from several countries. And I must say that Bhutanese are no less intelligent than other nationality. It is only us, and also the Asians, who have this west-is-the-best stereotype. In terms of spontaneity and service to others, Bhutanese are even better than others.

However, we have one deep-seated belief that is holding us from achieving our full potential – our normalisation of mediocrity. For example, when I was teaching in Sherubtse and when I used to call my students to inform them that the assignment was not up to the mark, they would ask me if they failed. When I replied that was the case, the students would just say, “If I am just-pass, I am okay, sir!” and walk away.

Well, the just-pass mentality is not okay if you are planning to go far. You have to push harder and further – in everything you do. Little extra efforts here and there. Like, how can I tell the story better? How about moving the camera by a few metres? Can I replace this part of the narration? Can I stay up another hour on the editing desk? All these can make the difference between a “great” product and a “mediocre” one.

In general, we Bhutanese have perfected the art of mediocrity. Our society has normalised it. Our system has encouraged it. Some have become masters in doing nothing. So, phrases like zha dha (leave it) nyam tsheyey (it’s bothersome), khey mi (it’s okay) have all been reappropriated from what were actually lifted from the profound Buddhist concepts of middle path and contentment. Of course, life need not be a rat race or a cut-throat competition, but you can relax later when you get my age. Right now, if you want to achieve something you have to move beyond the just-pass mindset.

The promises and potentials of Bhutan  

Bhutan is a treasure trove of stories. I am not the only one to say this. I heard Khyentshe Rimpoche made this remark too. In fact, there are only a few places in the world where you have mountains falling in love, lakes running away, twigs turning you invisible, statues speaking and rivers competing who will win the race till Brahmaputra. Tell these stories. The world wants to hear them because it is fed up with Hollywood superheroes and Korean drama.

Do not look at everything Bhutanese as inferior. Do not think that our stories are unreal and uninteresting – and our people are less capable than others. As an artist and as a journalist, at least, you should not do that. Train your mind to be in the present moment and see beauty in everything, and in everyone. Otherwise, everything will be flat. Your productions will be flat too like what you see on TV these days. The most inspiring story may come from a farmer or from a yak herder. 

Travel. Move. You are not a tree. Meet people without any prejudice. Listen carefully. Feel the place. Cherish the moment. Most importantly, be humble. Accept criticism. If there is one thing that will bring down our country it will be our ego. Of course, pride is an inherent quality of the Bhutanese. Thanks to it, we didn’t sell our soul to anyone. But there is a fine line between pride and ego.

20 years ago, in 2003, I won my first international award for School Among Glaciers. More awards followed in the subsequent years. That paved the way for many to believe that it was possible, and some of our guys celebrated greater glories. Now, the torch is in your hands to take our country to higher platforms. I hope you run with it. Both Bhutan and the Bhutanese have a great future, if you truly believe, and if you are ready to work towards it.

Oscars and Grammys are within reach.

One thing that I can tell you, from my own experience switching from engineering to arts, and also after mentoring lots of young producers and teaching media students, is that Bhutanese maybe are genetically disposed towards art, creativity, humanities, literature, and spiritualism, and service to others. I am not saying that science is off limits. My first two degrees were in electrical and electronics engineering respectively, and I aced all the subjects, except chemistry. Plus all seven of us who were sent to Italy to study engineering graduated with flying colours.

What I mean is that it is more likely that Bhutanese will win Oscars and Grammys rather than Nobel Prize. I also say this with confidence because I was very close to getting there. I am sure you will eventually. It will happen in my lifetime, if you promise me that you will put your heart and soul and holidays and your resources into this profession.

I end with one cautionary note. We Bhutanese also have the tendency to compare ourselves with our fellow citizens or co-workers. I think this behaviour comes from being a small society, which maybe further aggravated by our education system that categorises our students as first, second, third, or as pass and fail. 

I have no idea where and how I have overcome this, but I consider myself as my greatest competition. In other words, you are your worst opponent. It doesn’t matter in which country you are born, or live, but if you cannot drag yourself out of bed at 5 in the morning and run five kilometres and practice for hours every day, you will never be a good footballer. If you want your Sundays and holidays untouched, you cannot be a good journalist. If you don’t find yourself on the editing table at dawn, straight after your dinner, and without closing your eyes the whole night, you won’t be a good filmmaker. Yes, there are lots of social media memes about work-life balance and work-is-not-everything plaques on sale, but the old adage, no-pain-no-gain, is still valid.

And it will be if you are chasing excellence or success or whatever you may want to call it. As the lead character in Good, Bad and the Ugly, Blondie tells Tuco, “You (have to) dig” if you want the gold.

BBS newbies
At RTC. Year 2 media students
Japan 2003
South Korea, 2005
Award in media studies research and teaching. Salt Lake City, UT, 2018
Best academic paper, National Communication Association, USA, 2018
And of course, I have an engineering award too
Switzerland, 2004
Beijing, China, 2005

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