Few places on Earth share the beauty and isolation of Bhutan, an autonomous kingdom in the Himalayan Mountains. The eerie spectacle of an almost mystical landscape serves as the lush backdrop for a film detailing fierce competition. Here archery is the nation's game, steeped in honor and meaning, and considered very much an intellectual pursuit.
Entire villages turn out in the small South Asian country for a pastime celebrated there like nowhere else in the world. "The Archers of Bhutan" explores the deep-seeded cultural and historical importance the sport has achieved in that tiny nation, and the ironic and repeated Olympic disappointments it has suffered. For centuries, disputes in Bhutan have been resolved by way of bow and arrow. Like knives or even firearms in other lands, the significance of the weapon became deeply intertwined with identity, respect and pride. It also developed into a social structure of sorts, a ritual around which much of life in Bhutan is centered.
It's that tight focus the filmmakers are most intrigued by, one which has transformed archery for the Bhutanese people beyond just simple competition and into almost a national obsession. Yet despite an unparalleled enthusiasm for the sport, the country has never once even medaled in the Olympics. In fact, until 2012, Bhutan had only ever competed in Olympic Games in that one sport, though national variations to the matches and a seemingly unsporting attitude toward competitors has hampered their odds of success.
The film highlights how distraction is a choice strategy among Bhutan's competitors, continually hurling insults at opposing teams during matches, and making every physical and verbal attempt to throw players off their aim. This approach, though longstanding back home, has not always endeared Bhutan's Olympic archers to their international competitors. Much of the film follows a breakout star in the sport, a female archer who ultimately would become the first woman to represent Bhutan at the Olympics. Her intense devotion to training offers a captivating look at competition, self worth and dignity in the face of defeat.
Continually the film brings its narrative back to how profoundly connected the sport remains to the daily and weekly rituals of the country's proud people. Immense festivities surround the start of competitions, accented by fire, dance and a celebratory meal before even the first arrow is launched. Serving just as effectively as almost a travel documentary, "The Archers of Bhutan" guides a scenic tour through a land shrouded in misty mountaintops, deep heritage and an insatiable hunger for victory.