DIFF founders Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam on the festival's sixth edition, and what sets it apart

Trisha Gupta

Oct,21 2017 18:40 59 IST

The Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) turns six in November 2017. Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, the filmmaker couple who founded it in 2012, spoke with us about running a film festival, staying local while welcoming the world, and what makes DIFF different.

You've both lived in many places, across continents. Tell us about your connection with Dharamshala. What were the reasons you chose to settle down there?

Ritu: Tenzing and I had been living in London for many years when we decided to move back to India. We had two young kids and we were keen that they grew up in an environment where they would be part of both their Indian and Tibetan communities. Dharamshala was the perfect place for many reasons. My own family were originally from here. It is the home of the Dalai Lama and the centre of the exile Tibetan community, and a lot of our work is focused on issues around Tibet. And of course, it is a beautiful place!

How and when did the idea of DIFF first come to you? Why a film festival? And what were the necessary steps in bringing that idea to fruition?

Tenzing: We had lived in Dharamshala for a number of years when we began to feel the need for a contemporary cultural event that would bring together the town’s diverse communities. Although quite cosmopolitan in many ways, there were surprisingly few activities or cultural spaces in which Tibetans and Indians could jointly participate. As filmmakers, we had been to many film festivals around the world, so that was the most obvious thing we felt we could do.

Ritu: We were also interested in promoting an alternative cinema culture and encouraging filmmaking in a region that has very little access to contemporary cinema or art. Initially, the idea was to show a few films that Tenzing and I really liked and try and bring some filmmakers over.

Ritu and Tenzing at DIFF 2014

Ritu and Tenzing at DIFF 2014

In this era of torrents and Netflix, is there something about film festivals that still attracts people? What's been your experience over five years of running DIFF?

Ritu: Definitely! Firstly, watching a film in a theatre with an audience that shares your love of films is still a magical experience. In a festival, you also get to listen to the filmmakers and interact with them – that makes it even more special. Like-minded people come together for a few days for the pure pleasure of living, breathing and talking cinema.

Tenzing: When we started DIFF, like I said, our priority was to create a contemporary cultural event locally. But apparently, we had stumbled on an idea that was just waiting to be realised in India – the establishment of a personalised, cutting-edge, independent film festival, in a beautiful location away from the metros. The number of attendees has grown from 2000 people in 2012 to just under 6000 in 2016. Our volunteer force alone represents pretty much every corner of the country!

DIFF definitely feels rooted in Dharamshala. But given it's in a tourist-friendly place like Dharamshala, how do you maintain a balance between local participation and outside visitors?

Ritu: Yes, we underestimated the attraction an indie film festival in Dharamshala would have for a much wider audience. Now we're very aware of DIFF’s potential to enhance the town’s reputation as a cultural destination, and we do our best to cater to visitors from outside. We have a DIFF information-cum-registration booth in the main square at McLeod Ganj. We also run a shuttle service that ferries audiences from McLeod Ganj to our venue at the Tibetan Children’s Village and back. Through the DIFF website, we provide information on travel and accommodation and respond directly to queries relating to attending DIFF. At the venue, we set up a range of food and craft stalls in collaboration with community partners and ensure that our guests have plenty to do besides watching films. Also, our 80 volunteers are on hand to help visitors in every way.

But this does not really impact the way we run DIFF. By our reckoning around 50 percent of our audience comes from outside the Dharamshala area. I don’t have the figures for the split between delegate pass and student pass buyers at hand, but it’s probably half and half, and that’s because we give a lot of complimentary passes for local students to attend specific screenings.

Our priorities are still the same: to show quality independent films and to bring as many filmmakers as our limited resources allow; and to target local communities, especially through a series of outreach programmes. Through September and October this year, for instance, DIFF partnered with Jagori Rural Charitable Trust and the National Film Development Corporation of India to arrange a series of screenings in local schools, colleges, villages and at Dharamshala District Jail — all of which were tailored to meet the communities’ interests and concerns. Our Schools Film Appreciation Competition introduced around 45 students from six schools to the concept of active and critical engagement with cinema. At DIFF 2017, students from ten local schools will attend the Children's Programme, while another 10 local colleges will send students to watch Turup and Newton.

Do the same visitors come back every year? And if you're adding more new people every year, how do you ensure the small-scale indie spirit of the festival will survive? When something is successful, isn't there pressure to go bigger?

Tenzing: Yes, we get many returning film lovers who specifically plan their holidays around the festival. We’ve had loyal fans from as faraway as Hyderabad and Mumbai returning to the festival year after year. Many younger attendees have also returned as volunteers.

Ritu: Maintaining the personalised and intimate nature of DIFF is a huge priority for us. We believe that it is this quality that differentiates DIFF from other festivals. If we lose that, it will eventually become like any other large corporate-sponsored event. Having said that, even to maintain the festival at this level, it is a never-ending struggle to find funding. There are moments when one throws up one’s hands and wonders why we're doing this in the first place!

What has been the most unexpected part of running DIFF? 

Ritu: We never imagined the extent to which DIFF would attract audiences and filmmakers from all over India. It's become a platform for Indian indie filmmakers to showcase and discuss their work. In the past five years, we’ve welcomed most of the films and filmmakers who've made a mark on the Indian indie scene. 

Of course, with this success has also come much greater responsibility! We find ourselves in the strange and unpleasant position of having to turn down films — often not because they don’t deserve to be shown but because there simply is no space to accommodate every good film that we see. As filmmakers, we’ve been on the receiving end of this equation and know how disappointing it is when one’s film is not selected for a festival, which makes this part of the job even harder.

You're both longtime documentary filmmakers who have also made fiction. DIFF, too, makes space for epic fiction – say, Rajeev Ravi's Malayalam gangster film Kammatipadam last year — alongside shorts, children's films and searingly honest, intimate non-fiction, like Sean MacAllister's A Syrian Love Story. Do your audiences respond differently to fiction and non-fiction? Is there a hierarchy in people's minds?

Tenzing: Although we are primarily documentary filmmakers, we’ve been avid cinephiles since our college days. We love all kinds of films – docs, fiction, experimental – and we were clear that we would not have any specific criteria; we would simply show films that we loved and felt were important to share. This accounts for the eclectic nature of the films that screen at DIFF.

Ritu: As far as we’ve noticed, there isn’t an obvious separation in the way audiences approach the different kinds of films we screen. We’ve had full houses for films as diverse as Sonita, a documentary, and A Korean in Paris, a dramatic feature, with audiences overlapping both.

How do you choose films for the festival?

Ritu: We follow international film festivals and if we read about a film that sounds interesting to us, we contact the sales agent and get a screener. At the same time, we reach out to a network of filmmakers and film festival programmers from around the world to send us recommendations. And of course, we watch films ourselves at film festivals that we attend. In this way, we build up a long-list of films, which we then start watching. We have an informal group of friends who help us in this process. The final shortlist also depends on various other factors, some of which are beyond our control: e.g. the screening fee may be too expensive for us to afford, or the film might not be available on Blu-ray or as a digital file (we don’t have facilities to screen from DCPs). As far as possible, we also try and select films where the filmmakers can attend.

What are the films you're most excited about this year?

Tenzing: It’s always difficult to single out films as each film is there for a particular reason. However, this year, we’re particularly proud to be having the South Asian premieres of three experimental films: Amar Kanwar’s Such a Morning, Naeem Mohaiemen’s Tripoli Cancelled, and Tan Pin Pin’s In Time To Come.

You mentioned that your volunteers come from all over India. I can vouch for the fact that they really make DIFF what it is. How do you find them, or they you?

Ritu: Yes, our volunteers are the lifeblood of the festival. We've even had some from abroad! We put out a volunteer call on social media and a word-of-mouth network seems to do an amazing job of alerting people. Before we know it, we are inundated with applications. We also get many repeat volunteers, and friends of past volunteers. The enthusiasm of the volunteers is all the more remarkable considering the fact that they have to make their own way to Dharamshala and take care of their own accommodation. We only provide food and transport during the festival. One perk that the volunteers get is that they work in shifts and get to watch films for free during their off times.

Last question — what would you say to someone who dreams of running a film festival?

Ritu: Be prepared for a lot of very hard work, including spending a lot of time pursuing the thankless task of fund-raising! But if you stick with it, the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment you get at the end is enormous.

For more information on the 2017 edition of the Dharamshala Film Festival, click here.