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Dharamshala International Film Festival: Movies in the Mountains

Ahead of its sixth edition, Dharamshala International Film Festival directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam explain what it takes to run the show

A still from ‘Village Rockstars’.
A still from ‘Village Rockstars’.

It’s appropriate that the Dharamshala International Film Festival (Diff) begins two weeks after the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. The latter, a seven-day mega event, begins with a premiere night, hosts big-ticket Q&A sessions, and, through a logistically complex schedule, showcases the latest festival heavyweights—it included this year’s Palme d’Or winner The Square and Sundance favourite Call Me By Your Name. Each day begins at 8 am, with a potentially website-crashing rush to book tickets for the next day. At Diff, things are slow and easy. One simply queues up at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, the festival venue that is a 10-minute drive through the forest from McLeodganj. It plays a carefully curated line-up of fiction, documentary and short films to a mixed audience of film-makers, journalists, foreign tourists and locals.

The quaint appeal of the Himalayan town aside, there are few film festivals as connected to their geographical context, its people and politics, as Diff. Its film fellows programme, currently in its fourth edition, seeks out talent from the hill regions, from Manipur to Jammu and Kashmir. In its five years, the festival, run by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, independent film-makers themselves, has earned a place in the bucket-list of cinephiles and the goodwill of the film-making community. Diff has been a platform for films from and about Tibet, the best of contemporary Indian indies (Court, Thithi), and cutting-edge international documentaries; it received 6,000 entries last year. Delhi-born Sarin and Darjeeling-born Sonam met in 1975, married, and have been making films together since 1985.

Ahead of Diff’s sixth edition (2-5 November), Sarin and Sonam speak about retaining the ethos of the festival, the festivals around the world that have influenced them, and funding. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin.

You said in an interview that it was in 2014 that you realized that DIFF, which started as a local festival, has become something more.

Sarin: We’ve been film-makers for many years . We wanted to do something for our local community in Dharamsala, which has been our home for 20 years.

So we started as a local festival really, but we didn’t think it was going to impact the larger Indian indie film world. Then we discovered that more and more people were coming from all over the country, so it had filled some much needed niche. We feel that Diff now serves both the local communities and a wider film-loving audience. The idea is to have a lot of conversation and exchange of ideas—there are so many film-makers who come here. We have no competition, no market, it’s very much for the love of cinema.

Has that changed the festival?

Sonam: People keep coming back because we haven’t changed the ethos of the festival at all, which is to celebrate good cinema in intimate and congenial surroundings. We don’t want to grow too big.

The audience at a Diff screening.

What’s new this year?

Sarin: We are expanding our community programmes this year. We are going to six schools, talking about appreciating cinema and conducting a film-writing competition. We are also having screenings at the local prison, something we started last year. A few days back, we showed Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro in the district jail in Dharamsala, which had an amazing response from the inmates. We are also showcasing two films by well-known artists—Amar Kanwar’s Such A Morning and Naeem Mohaiemen’s Tripoli Cancelled. These films normally get shown in the gallery space, so it will be an interesting experiment to introduce them in a more traditional cinema context.

Are there any predominant themes and ideas in the films this year?

Sonam: We start out with a clean slate. But each year, some kind of thematic continuity emerges organically. This year, for instance, we have a number of films about film-makers going back to their communities. In Village Rockstars, director Rima Das goes back to her village. The Swallow, by Swiss-Kurdish film-maker Mano Khalil, is set in Kurdistan, where he grew up.

Sarin: And even a film like Angamaly Diaries, the director Lijo Jose Pellissery is very much from that place it is set in. In Ralang Road, director Karma Takapa sets his film in his little hometown in Sikkim.

There appears to be a preference for films from South-East Asia.

Sonam: Over the years, we have realized that people have a lot more access to certain kinds of indie films from the West because they are much more publicized. But films from our part of the world, and South and South-East Asia, are less visible. So, we are more partial to that region.

Is there any film festival in the world that has influenced Diff?

Sarin: There are some amazing festivals in unusual places: for example, the Amazonas Film Festival, started by the Amazonas government (in Brazil) to attract film-making in the region.

Sonam: The Tromsø International Film Festival in the Arctic Circle has the same kind of intimate vibe, where directors get to meet each other over meals. The CAAMFest, the Asian-American film festival in San Francisco has a similar quality. These are different from a big festival such as the Toronto International Film Festival, where one hardly get to interact with the audience or fellow film-makers.

Do you have more funds now ?

Sarin: Even though Diff’s reputation has been on the rise, our funding hasn’t improved. Maybe it’s even going in the opposite direction. We get support from the NFDC, private donors and support in kind from Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, the embassies of Switzerland and Israel, and the Japan Foundation.

Sonam: We reach out to potential sponsors, including corporates. We haven’t had much luck so far. It’s partly because Diff is not like a festival in Delhi or Bangalore (Bengaluru) where you can attract bigger sponsors. The Himachal Pradesh government isn’t so rich as compared to other states but they have been supporting us from the beginning.

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