Journey to the Little Kingdom Leading the Fight Against Climate Change

Climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet. Yet, there remains a single country with a negative carbon footprint. Perched on the Himalayas’ eastern edge between two of the highest-polluting countries in the world, the Kingdom of Bhutan stands as one of the leading nations in environmental conservation. Over 60 percent of the kingdom is forested, it contains the highest percentage of protected land in all of Asia, and it’s considered one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

When people hear about this, they can’t help but wonder, well — how? At a time of global environmental crisis, Bhutan shines like a light in the dark.

Inspired by the country’s enigmatic conservation efforts, Finn and Jack Harries, along with a small film crew led by director Matthew K. Firpo and cinematographer Jeremy Snell, recently ventured to the Kingdom of Bhutan to highlight how the South Asian country is combating climate change. Once there, they met a man by the name of Sonam Phuntsho, which is where this story takes a unique turn. A local forest caretaker, Sonam has spent the past 60 years planting over 100,000 trees by hand. “The Kingdom” is the result of this meeting and depicts the difference a single person can make in our ever-changing world.

Hoping to learn more about the film and the greater impact of Sonam’s story, we sat down with Finn, Matthew, and Jeremy to ask them a few questions.

A local forest caretaker in the Kingdom of Bhutan

So, how did this trip come about?

Jeremy: A couple of summers ago, the three of us traveled to Hawaii to hike the Nā Pali Coast on Kauai. We spent a few weeks on the island, camping and living in the beautiful outdoors. At the end of that trip, we all sat down and began to scheme up where we would travel next. I casually threw Bhutan in as a potential option, and the guys loved the idea — the mystery around the country intrigued us. As we began researching more about Bhutan in the following months, we discovered that there was a bigger story to be told there. What started as an adventure among friends turned into this incredible filmmaking journey.

How did you get the attention of WWF?

Finn: Luckily, I had worked with WWF in 2015 on a short film that documented the effects of climate change on the Greenland ice sheet. Ever since that project, I’ve been looking for the right opportunity to collaborate with them again. When we told them we wanted to tell an environmental story from Bhutan, they were excited to support us and helped us connect with the WWF Bhutan office.

Finn and Jack Harries, along with their film crew, during the making of The Kingdom
The Tiger's Nest in the Kingdom of Bhutan

What did you want this project to be, exactly?

Matthew: From the very beginning, this project was an exercise in manifesting creativity. We knew we wanted to tell a story about the environment, about conservation, so when the right doors opened to bring us all to Bhutan, we dreamt up the perfect narrative. It began as a kind of wishlist, a neat and tidy little paragraph: “This is the story we’re trying to tell, and this is why we’re trying to tell it.” From that half-page brief about a fictional forest caretaker who planted trees one at a time, something incredible was born — our partners at WWF Bhutan found Sonam Phuntsho, the living, breathing character from our imagined story, almost exactly as we’d envisioned months before. This really happened. Sometimes all of your plans work out perfectly. Through a series of luck, connection, and happenstance, we found ourselves in a position to do what we all do best —- make a difference through the telling and sharing of stories. It was a creative brain trust from start to finish.

What did you know about Bhutan’s conservation efforts before setting off?

Finn: Early on in our research, we came across a TED talk by Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. In it, he speaks passionately about Bhutan’s position as the only carbon-negative country in the world, outlining an ambitious plan for sustainable development called Bhutan For Life. This piqued our curiosity and initiated our deep dive into articles, books, and research papers exploring Bhutan’s approach to development and environmental stewardship. WWF also helped educate us on the work they’re doing in Bhutan, as they were one of the main partners who helped structure and support the Bhutan For Life initiative.

Behind the scenes footage of The Kingdom

Did you have any initial hopes for the project?

Matthew: When we set out to make this film, we only knew that we wanted to make a difference. The world is changing, and capturing Bhutan as it is now mattered to us. We wanted to explore conservation, but make it a human story, a human issue — to show climate change from one person’s perspective. We hoped to document a Bhutanese forest caretaker, watch them plant trees, and understand what a day in their life is like — from the simple details of their home to why they get up in the morning — and that’s precisely what we did.

Curiosity is what drives me to tell stories about the world and the people in it, so I personally wanted to know what inspires someone in one of the smallest countries on Earth to make a difference. The story we found in Sonam was more than we could have ever hoped for. Here was someone who had a higher purpose, a quiet man who worked to make the world a better place in his own small way. That message, about making your difference, was something we wanted to share with the world. It was what we’d hoped for and more.

Cinematographer Jeremy Snell behind the scenes of The Kingdom
Cinematographer Jeremy Snell behind the scenes of The Kingdom

In the behind the scenes video, Finn mentions that there was a problem with your filming permit and that you had to leave a lot of gear behind in order to enter the country, forcing you to shoot everything by hand. How did that restriction push you creatively?

Jeremy: We had a beautiful set of cinema lenses reserved and donated to us for the project, but because of this last-minute permit issue, we decided to travel with a small camera package and my own set of rehoused vintage lenses instead. Matthew also brought a set of cheap prisms that he found online, and after some early hotel room testing, we decided to marry them to our lensing approach. Overall, I think the restriction challenged us to embrace imperfections, create something authentic to Sonam’s life, craft a new and honest way of telling this story, and be much more agile on the ground.

How did you get in touch with Sonam Phuntsho?

Finn: As Matthew mentioned, we had daydreamed about telling the story of a character who simply plants trees for a living in one of our first discussions on this project, and to our amazement, WWF Bhutan told us about Sonam Phuntsho, the embodiment of this very character! As a forest caretaker and a committed environmentalist, he literally plants trees for a living — he’s planted more than 100,000 throughout his lifetime. When we heard his story, we enthusiastically asked WWF Bhutan to connect us. At the time, it seemed too good to be true.
A local forest caretaker in the Kingdom of Bhutan

Was communication difficult between you all?

Jeremy: Whenever you’re working in a country where you don’t speak the native language, communication is always a challenge. I have learned to embrace this and have grown to love interacting nonverbally with subjects in front of the camera — it forces us both to react emotionally, on a human level. It also eliminates a third party interrupting the flow and chemistry that may be developing. That being said, our lovely Bhutanese guide, Sangay, helped translate for us when we needed it, ensuring that everything unfolded smoothly.

What struck you most about following Sonam’s daily routine — one that he’s been doing for the past 60 years?

Matthew: When I make any film, I’m always struck by the way that our characters let us into their lives. We go from strangers to family, bonded by the strange mechanism of storytelling and high hopes. Sitting on the floor of Sonam’s house (that he built out of fallen trees and recycled lumber), I was struck by how fully this man practices what he preaches. Planting trees, caring for the environment — this is his religion. He’s given all of himself to what he believes in, to making a difference in a very honest way, and there isn’t an ounce of aggrandizement or a desire for praise. Everything in his life — from the way he raised his family to the many animals he’s adopted to the house he built — speaks deeply to his convictions. Sonam lives every day in service of making his small corner of the world better.

A local forest caretaker in the Kingdom of Bhutan
A local forest caretaker in the Kingdom of Bhutan

What about the experience (or setting) inspired you most?

Jeremy: Bhutan is truly a magical Kingdom. It’s rare to find a country so remote and still somewhat in the early stages of tourism. Though the landscapes and architecture are breathtaking, I was most deeply impacted by the people and their beautiful outlook on life. They view every living creature and plant as sacred, and they have tremendous dedication toward the preservation of the environment they live in.

You’ve called this project “a labor of love full of lifelong memories and experiences.” What parts of this experience weren’t shown in the film?

Jeremy: I didn’t view this project as a job at all — rather, my intent was to embark on a deep experience with friends and connect with each other as well as the country we were in. There were moments and sometimes entire days when we didn’t even bring the camera with us. This holistic approach made the trip transcend many of the film jobs that I’m typically a part of. It became something else entirely.
A local forest caretaker in the Kingdom of Bhutan

What did you learn from Bhutan as a whole?

Finn: Learning about Bhutan’s approach to measuring Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product as a metric for sustainable development blew my mind. We’re so complacent in the West that we don’t think to question the very structure of the systems that govern our everyday lives. At a time when we’re witnessing historic inequality and a rapidly destabilizing global climate, countries like Bhutan offer a critically important insight into alternative ways of structuring our society and the way we live.

The film’s underlying message is one of hope. What did this experience teach you about an individual’s impact on the world?

Matthew: I have always been a dreamer. I have always believed in the power of a great idea whose time has come. This film is about hope because it’s about the future — it’s a quiet reminder that our actions do matter, that hope, inspiration, and a good story are all powerful tools. The world is made up of billions of individuals, and in our own small way, we can each make the choice to care. That’s how change happens: piece by piece, person by person. Hope is a gift, something we can give to one another even in the face of impossible odds.

Finn: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and even hopeless when we read the headlines on climate change. However, Sonam is a living testament to the fact that one individual can make a positive difference. The act of planting trees is a great way to have a positive impact on the environment, but we can also think of it as a metaphor. Wherever we live in the world, we all have the capacity — and, perhaps, even the responsibility — to plant positive seeds of intention in the hope of making the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

A local forest caretaker in the Kingdom of Bhutan
A local forest caretaker in the Kingdom of Bhutan

Is there anything you learned from this creative experience that you’ll apply to other projects?

Jeremy: Collaborating with friends is key. I truly believe that this job is more about the journey than it is the end product. Find the people that you enjoy working with, and create together from your hearts. If your dream project doesn’t exist yet, you may just have to manifest it for yourself. Nobody asked us to make this film or go on this journey; we all just had a deep desire to make it happen and found the right collaborators and organizations to support the idea.

What do you hope this film conveys?

Matthew: This is the story of how a small country is striving to make a difference, and how that desire to help fix the world represents a lesson to us all. This film is a look at climate change and personal impact on a deeply micro level — it’s about the difference one person can make in a great big world. In sharing this story, we’re holding a mirror to our audience and asking: How are you making your difference? This project is very close to our hearts. Although Bhutan is a small country high in the Himalayas, their mission is grand. They’re striving to make the world a better place. My hope is that we can share that honest ambition with the world. Change starts with you, one single tree at a time.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jeremy: Nga Druk lu gai.

Matthew: The things you make with love last forever.

Want to join Sonam in the fight against climate change? Click here.

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Hailing from the foothills of Northern California, Kacie is a writer and an editor who's worked on everything from quarterly surf magazines to art books, novels, lookbooks, city guides, and shoddily printed zines. She's a bit of a story junkie, but we forgive her for that. To view more of her work, creep her website and Instagram.