It should be easy to write about the Dharamshala International Film Festival. Started five years ago by the wonderfully matter-of-fact Ritu Sarin and the almost shy Tenzing Sonam (partners in life and documentary filmmaking, whose longterm connection to the Tibetan cause led them to settle in Dharamshala in 1996), DIFF is the sort of experience that leaves you pinching yourself. How could some people you've never even met have created the film festival of your dreams?
The remarkable thing about DIFF, though, is that its dreaminess is real. Sarin and Sonam, Tibet activists for as long as they have been filmmakers, aren't the sort to create some airy-fairy fantasy world. The location this year was the Tibetan Children's Village: a Dharamshala institution that began in 1960 with fifty-one children from a road construction camp and a rug borrowed from the Dalai Lama. The school campus, built by the labour of generations of TCV students, is a 15 minute drive up from McLeodganj's central square, and lends itself well to the festival's well-adjusted local-global vibe. The bigger screenings are held in the school auditorium, with the resonant names of houses — Songtsen, Trival, Trisong and Nyatri — emblazoned on the walls, and its cavernous cement depths oft invaded by freezing draughts that should give potential snuggling couples just the excuse they need.
The films, too, aren't just a list of the Biggest-Coolest-Latest that money can buy, as the bigger festivals are increasingly becoming. What we get instead is a perfectly curated mix of fiction and non-fiction, Indian and international, features and shorts, with a sense of each film being chosen for its own sake, with no kowtowing to 'themes' — and yet a clear political-personal sensibility at work. The documentary, for instance, gets more play here than it might at a different festival of the same size: this year, for instance, there were as many as nine feature-length documentaries to 17 narrative features. And in keeping with the festival's non-divisive spirit, non-fiction isn't relegated to a separate section like fiction's less-cool sibling. It appears that just this small change in approach — not making a big hoo-ha about documentaries, but simply adding them to the mix in no-fuss fashion — is enough to produce avidly enthusiastic full houses for them. Two of the biggest crowdpleasers I watched at DIFF, in fact, were non-fiction: the British filmmaker Sean McAllister's powerfully personal engagement with a Syrian-Palestinian family (A Syrian Love Story, 2015) and the Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's documentary about a teenaged Afghan refugee becoming a internet rap sensation (Sonita, 2015).
The other thing to remember is that DIFF is a compact three-day festival, and the number of films is tiny in comparison with IFFI or MAMI or IFFK. I swiftly began to realise that scale is everything. Unlike larger film festivals, there are usually no more than two parallel screenings, with an occasional conversation competing for your attention. This makes it possible, at the end of each day, to feel as if you've actually shared a substantial chunk of experience with the young whippersnapper who's already screened at Venice and is invariably ahead of you in the bar queue, and with the lovely quirky American lady who mentions her knee replacement surgeries with enviable lightness, even as she matches you step for step down the stone staircase shortcut that connects one screening venue with another. This is it, then — the not-so-secret secret of community: smallness, sharing, and a resolute lack of hierarchy.
But what makes DIFF different, in the end, is not the superbly well-chosen films, the infectious warmth of apple-cheeked children running around in the winter sun, or even the lung- and mind-expanding air up in the mountains, where (as the terribly youthful director Raam Reddy put it so charmingly before the Opening Night screening of his film Thithi), “the soul feels close to your body”. What really creates the vibe of the festival is the people.
There is something particularly freeing about having people — whether new initiates or veteran filmwallahs — congregating all the way from Delhi and Kerala, Bombay and Pune and Bengaluru, to sharing cinema and conversation in a place which feels somehow unburdened by the weight of Culture with a capital C. There is a great deal of serious conversation, both political and artistic, but it is conducted in the generous spirit of bonhomie and constructive criticism. There are few 'big men' around, and if they are, they don't have the license here — or perhaps the yen — to throw their weight around. I wait warily when Saeed Mirza, whose films I have long admired, is encouraged to pontificate on the state of the nation. He holds forth (as is his wont, and as I remember him doing in a white kurta-pajama, sprawled on the Siri Fort lawns in a Delhi IFFI in the early 90s), but he sounds accurate, as if his own inner bullshit-detector is working better in the mountain air.
All successful film festivals are pilgrimages, and DIFF is no exception. Most vivid proof of this is provided by the veritable army of youthful volunteers who arrive year upon year, contributing their time and spending their own money to participate in the hectic yet orderly shramdaan that is essential to the festival's success. Some volunteers I met had no particular interest in cinema; several others were film-mad. Many of those I spoke to at some length shared a dilemma about the artistic life – can one ever make a living off it, or must one's art be honed independently of whatever what does to make a living?
For one young Malayali man I met, volunteering at DIFF was a way into understanding how to run a film festival some day: “I want to learn, how do you get 200 people to work for you for free?” he grinned. For another — also visiting from Kerala but not a volunteer — DIFF was his first film festival. Engineer by training and entrepreneur by instinct, he's already sorted out a small business; now he's immersing himself in cinema because he's writing scripts for Malayalam films.
The lovely thing that makes DIFF a community, perhaps, is that it isn't just the volunteers who're grappling with that question of independence. Whether by choice or by design, the festival seems to attract filmmakers and writers and artists who're striving to keep creative control of their work — while not being starved entirely of the oxygen of popularity.
Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi. Follow her work here.