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Toronto Film Festival
The Monk and a Mobile Phone

Documentary film Sing Me a Song, a Germany-France-Switzerland co-production shot entirely in Bhutan chronicles the transformative impact of technology on the Himalayan kingdom
Documentary film Sing Me a Song, a Germany-France-Switzerland co-production shot entirely in Bhutan chronicles the transformative impact of technology on the Himalayan kingdom | © Courtesy TIFF’

Sing Me a Song, a new documentary film premiered at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival shows the transformative impact of technology in the story of a young monk.

By Faizal Khan

Peyangki was faced with a choice very early in his life. A little boy living in a remote village in Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom nestled between India and China, he had been told by his mother and sister to start attending their local school. Peyangki, however, knew what he had to do. The boy informed his family that he wanted to join the Buddhist monastery in the neighbourhood and become a monk. A decade later, he would be tested again with a choice. This time, technology would play a big role in the young monk's decision.

The story of Peyangki in the remote Laya village of Bhutan, one of the last nations in the world to adopt the internet, is the subject of a new documentary film by French director Thomas Balmès. Sing Me a Song, a Germany-France-Switzerland co-production shot entirely in Bhutan, chronicles the sudden changes in a society as technology enters the lives of ordinary people. The film, which had its world premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival held during September 5-15, offers a fresh perspective on the increasing dependence on mobile devices.

Peyangki's intriguing life as a young monk addicted to mobile phone lies at the core of Sing Me a Song, which shows the frightening pace at which Bhutan embraced technology reversing centuries of isolation from the outside world. Within two decades of opening up the nation to the internet, Bhutan rises to the top of the chart of countries with connected consumers. A grown-up Peyangki's struggles with himself as he has to decide between a girl he met online and staying on as a monk reflect the Buddhism-dominated nation's own problems dealing with a technology-driven transformation.

Embracing technology

Sing Me a Song begins with Peyangki strolling across a meadow in the jaw-dropping backdrop of Bhutan's snow-clad peaks. He is seven years old and worries over the impending arrival of electricity in his village. "I am scared of electricity because our homes will catch fire," he says anxiously. It is the year 2009. Exactly a decade earlier, the then king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, father of the current monarch Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, had taken a major decision to allow television and the internet in Bhutan after resisting the move for long. 

When the king allowed television and the internet, the country quickly adapted to the new technology. People bought big television sets. The most popular show was wrestling with people glued to their television sets in awe watching the spectacular attacking maneuvers of mega-sized fighters. But Peyangki's village, which was far away and hidden between mountains, was not among the early faithfuls of technology. "The Laya village was very remote," says Balmès, who first came to Bhutan in 2009 to shoot a documentary on the arrival of technology in the Himalayan kingdom. "It took one day of driving from Thimphu and two days of walking to reach the village," he adds.

It was during his 2009 trip that Balmès met the seven-year-old Peyangki. "There were many remote places in Bhutan that were still not connected to the world," recalls the director, known for his critically-acclaimed 2010 film Babies, which surveyed one year in the life of four babies — in Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco and Tokyo. The filmmaker wanted to go to one such remote place without technology. He chose Laya. "I went there. There were houses scattered in the mountains and the whole village had 900 people," he says. Walking in the hills, he came across Peyangki. "I knew instantly that he would be my character," beams Balmès.

Balmès did three years of shooting to make Happiness, on the arrival of technology in Bhutan. Peyangki, who was seven years then, was his protagonist. The film, which introduced Peyangki and his village to international audiences, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 where it won the Documentary World Cinema Cinematography Award. In Happiness, Peyangki is apprehensive about electricity, but is eager to discover the magic of television. Once the shooting for Happiness was over, Balmès left Laya and Bhutan in 2011. He would return to the village eight years later. 

Transforming Society

"I returned to Laya in March 2017 and went to visit the village's monastery," recalls Balmès. Peyangki was 17 years old now and woke up everyday in his monastery bed to the sound of his smartphone's alarm. Young monks were chanting Buddhist texts and chatting at the same time. Peyangki is pulled up one day by a senior monk for learning fewer texts. By this time, he was pursuing a relationship with Ugyen, a girl he met online. Ugyen, a barroom singer in Thimphu, sings him love songs while he saves money from collecting medicinal mushrooms to go visit her. 

As Peyangki gathers enough money to travel to Thimphu, Balmès's camera follows the young monk to the capital. "In Thimphu, everybody is walking in the streets while talking on their mobile phones. It is just like New York or Toronto or Tokyo," says the director. The camera also goes inside video parlours full of young people. "They play the same games and watch the same shows," explains Balmès. Once they meet, Peyangki and Ugyen have to come out of the comfort of their mobile phone screens and confront the real world. Things gets complicated when the monastery in Laya sends a monk to bring Peyangki back. 

"Balmès is a master of observation as he demonstrated in his longitudinal study, Babies, which chronicled the development of infants in different parts of the world," says Thom Powers, the TIFF Docs programmer. "With beautiful cinematography, he marshalls nuance, humour, and humanity. To witness the effects of technology in a country that kept it at bay for so long gives us a fresh lens to reflect on what it means to our own lives," adds Powers.

Peyangki was present at the world premiere of Sing Me a Song at the Toronto film festival, travelling a long way from his village in Bhutan. "I get so much knowledge from my mobile phone," he said in a Q&A session with the audience after the screening. "The mobile phone allows me to remain attached to the world, which is like, the rest of the world."