At a time when McLeod Ganj in Dharmasala had only a few video parlours showing mainstream Bollywood and Hollywood films, filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam decided that what this town needs is a full-scale film festival of its own and came up with the idea of the now well-known Dharamsala International Film Festival (DIFF).

Ritu and Tenzing started making films together when they were both students in the San Francisco Bay area. “We did a joint thesis documentary, The New Puritans: The Sikhs of Yuba City, which launched our careers and since then, for more than 30 years, we have worked together mainly making documentaries. Over the years, we have branched into making one feature film — Dreaming Lhasa — and numerous video installations,” the duo, which is the prime force behind DIFF, said in statement to Guardian 20.

Ritu and Tenzing’s love for art and cinema have always been associated with the Free Tibet movement. “When we started out making films, we realised that most films about Tibet were being made by non-Tibetans and although well-meaning for the most part, lacked an insight that could only come from within the community. We made a decision to fill this gap by focusing on Tibet-themed subjects, as we were both closely connected to the exile Tibetan community and passionately engaged in its struggle. Our films, always, come from a more personal perspective and the issues they address are issues that concern us personally,” they added.

In 1991, they started their own independent film company, White Crane Films, which today forms the backbone of DIFF. This festival, unlike the marquee film fests held in Mumbai and Goa, is entirely non-commercial. “Set against the backdrop of the majestic Dhauladhar mountains, DIFF neither has corporate sponsorships nor big celebrities taking over. It is a platform where audiences and filmmakers interact and intermingle quite informally. The philosophy of DIFF is purely to celebrate good cinema,” says the duo.

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They add: “The fact that we are filmmakers ourselves is crucial to DIFF’s special character. We bring to the festival our own experience of attending film festivals around the world — both large and small. Other filmmakers are more open to supporting the festival because we are fellow filmmakers. We can call on a wide network of filmmakers, producers, sales agents, distributors, and festival programmers to advice us, recommend films, and often to help us get in touch with the filmmakers. And most importantly, as filmmakers, we understand the importance of creating a platform to showcase independent films. As noted Bengali filmmaker Qaushiq Mukherjee, popularly known as Q, had once put it, ‘Ritu and Tenzing are independent filmmakers themselves, so they know the value system of independent filmmaking. We really would love DIFF to be our Telluride, which is the place for us to come. We would like to premiere in DIFF. So I think it is a very important space that has developed, and we need these spaces’.   

“DIFF grew out of long conversations around our kitchen table in Dharamsala. Initially, our idea was to introduce the local community to good, alternative cinema. Starting a film festival seemed like the most natural thing for us to do, given that we are filmmakers and are passionate about good cinema.”

DIFF was launched in 2012, in a Himalayan town with no cinema halls, with the help of a bunch of enthusiastic local volunteers. The festival is going to kick off its fifth edition in a couple of months. “Celebrating DIFF’s fifth year is a major achievement for us. We had no idea that it would consume us for the next five years and that it would gradually establish itself as a destination for filmmakers and film lovers from across India. We look back and think of all the different people who worked on this project, all the interns and volunteers, and of course, all our supporters and partners, and realise what a successful collaborative effort it has been,” the organisers said.

With an initiative of introducing the local community to world cinema, DIFF has had some remarkable first openings and special screenings. With its very first edition, it captured a special place in the hearts of indie filmmakers — the opening film was Shahid by Hansal Mehta. In its second edition, Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry had sparked off a huge discussion among local college students and film enthusiasts on prevailing caste prejudices in society. “Asif Kapadia’s brilliant masterclass on making fiction and documentaries; Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie presenting her acclaimed film, Zero Motivation in 2015; the standing ovation from a full house accorded to Abhay Kumar’s documentary on loopholes in our education system in Placebo last year are few of the memorable moments that have gone on to shape five years of DIFF,” the two organisers said.  

This year’s line-up, yet to be fully announced, includes shorts, children films, a special screening of three single-channel videos and sound installations by the Palestinian artist duo, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Aboue-Rahme. One of the most anticipated films in the current line-up is Sean McAllister’s documentary A Syrian Love Story , which tracks the disintegration of a marriage after a family flees Syria and Rajeev Ravi’s  Kammatipaadam, which explores Dalit marginalization in Kerala through a fictional friendship.

DIFF will be hosted at the Tibetan Children’s Village, a few kilometers from Dharamsala, from November 3-6, 2016.

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