Festival Report: Dharamshala International Film Festival 2014

I met Lhamo Lobsang, a Tibetan exile, at his one-room house near McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. In between teaching me how to tuck the filling into a Tibetan momo—it is all about the secret pinch—he told me about his walk from Tibet to Nepal that lasted 26 days. At the age of 13, he had to leave his family behind and undertake the dangerous journey with 20 others so that he could “meet the Dalai Lama, learn English and get access to a better life”. Like many other Tibetan exiles in McLeod Ganj, Lobsang, too, longed for his home and the food cooked by his mother who was a chef in Lhasa.

The next time I spoke to Lobsang, he told me about a documentary he had watched on Tibetan artist Tenzing Rigdol who smuggled 20,000 kilos of soil from Shigatse in Tibet to India for an art installation. Rigdol spread it on the ground and asked Tibetans to walk on it. It was cathartic for those who had fled their homeland, and even those who were not born in Tibet felt a connection with their roots. “Home,” said Lobsang. “Home. I felt happy and sad.” The documentary Bringing Tibet Home directed by Tenzin Tsetan Choklay was one among the many films that were screened at the third Dharamshala International Film Festival (October 30 to November 2).

A still from Bringing Tibet Home
A still from Bringing Tibet Home

Dharmashala, a small town where the Dalai Lama resides, is nestled between the Dhauladar ranges in Himachal Pradesh and can be covered by foot in less than a day. Much like the northeast, the town is cut off from the rest of the country because of the large presence of Tibetan refugees here. This could be the reason why there is not a single movie hall in Dharamshala despite its being part of a Bollywood-crazy country. Local people watch Hollywood films on pirated DVDs sold in video libraries here.

It was to fill this void that filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, who live inDharamshala, decided to start the film festival. The duo, who has made acclaimed documentaries like When Hari Got Married and Dreaming Lhasa, says the not-for-profit festival is much like a “community culture project”. Sarin sees it as their way of giving back to society. “It is also about nurturing upcoming talents and providing a platform to independent filmmakers,” she says.

The four-day festival opened with Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi and screened films centred on the themes of conflict, displacement, freedom and identity like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, Avinash Arun’s Killa and Geetu Mohandas’s Liar’s Dice. Some of the less well known films that were screened were Mano Khalil’s The Beekeeper, Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours, Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love, Talal Derki’s Return to Home and Jehane Noujaim’s powerful documentary on the Tahrir Square revolution, The Square. The films were screened at the 500-seater Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.

A still from The Square
A still from The Square

The Beekeeper tells the story of a beekeeper’s struggle during the conflict between Turkey and Kurdistan and Cambodian Sun is about poet Kosal Kheiv’s escape from a US prison to Cambodia. The film that made the biggest impact was The Square, which Diksha Keshari, one of the 80 volunteers at the festival, describes as “scary, powerful and devastating”.

The main objective of the festival was to bring the community together and create an ecosystem for upcoming filmmakers, says Sarin. “There are many aspiring young filmmakers who live in places like Agartala, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh,” she says. “It is difficult to make it in a profession like this when you are limited by geographical barriers.” To remedy this, the festival introduced a Film Fellows programme this year where five young filmmakers from the Himalayan region were selected and mentored by acclaimed directors Hansal Mehta and Anupama Srinivas.

“The sessions were more like conversations than classes,” says 23-year-old Munmun Dhalaria of Dharamshala, one of the fellows. “It was a great learning experience because I met people and saw films from different parts of the world. The encouragement from the mentors gave me confidence in my work as an independent filmmaker.”

It was not just the film community that benefited from the festival. For local people like Tenzin Tselha, director of the NGO Students for a Free Tibet, the festival provided a platform to reach out to people and inform them of the “real Tibet story”. “Film enthusiasts are usually open to new ideas and perspectives,” she says. “And films are a great way to connect with people and make them aware of the problems and struggles of others.” According to Ashwini Bhatia, owner of a cafe called Moonpeak Cafe in Dharamshala, the town is very welcoming to people who enrich its cultural fabric. “Be it cinema, art or music, anybody who brings the world to us is helping the town,” he said in a festival video.

After the festival, Dharamshala went back to being its quiet self. The stalls selling momos and Tibetan crafts were pulled down and the roads were cleaned. But the conversations, the ideas, the images and the thoughts that the films threw up will linger in the minds of those who participated in the festival. “It has brought together a community through a medium unfamiliar to it,” says Dhalaria. “Rajat Kapoor said it quite aptly when he said that ‘cinema is my sickness; it is hard to leave now even if one fails sometimes’. The festival and the people I met here have given me the courage to admit my sickness and have inspired me to pursue my dream.”

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