Film festivals can be hard work. It involves thorough research on the movies you want to catch, a solid game plan for making it to all of them, standing in long queues, and so on. Those who attended the Mumbai Film Festival a couple of weeks ago will concur. While that sort of chaos has a thrill of its own, it’s heartening to know that festivals like the Dharamshala International Film Festival can also exist. 

Here, instead of a sleek multiplex, you’re in a cosy auditorium of a Tibetan school in Upper Dharamshala that overlooks the mountains. Even as you’re watching movies, you can hear the friendly chatter of kids playing with a ball outside. During one screening, a ball landed on the tin roof of the auditorium with a thud, and no one cared. One festival goer attended all screenings with his pet dog. It’s an experience like no other.

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The smell of multiplex popcorn is replaced by freshly steamed momos and you’ll find filmmakers like the National Award-winning Gurvinder Singh (Chauthi Koot and Anhe Ghore Da Daan) quietly running a biryani stall. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam must be the only festival founders who don’t want to see their baby grow into a monster red carpet event. DIFF’s warmth and intimacy is what makes it so unique.

Being filmmakers themselves has somewhat equipped the husband and wife duo to cope with the two hardest aspects of running a festival – raising funds and managing people

Sarin and Sonam have been residents of Dharamshala for two decades now. The couple started the festival six years ago to give the region the well-rounded cultural event it deserved. According to their records, last year around 6000 people watched films at DIFF. “We felt that creating communities is very important. We have virtual communities but cinema was so much about sitting in a darkened theatre and experiencing a film together. It was a bit complicated by the fact there was no theatre here, hence the pop-up nature of this festival,” explains Sarin. Last year, Dharamshala got its first movie theatre, Gold Cinema – a compact 150-seater. “Earlier there used to be video parlours in McLeodganj with pirated copies of Hollywood films. Now there are rats running around the place. People watch movies either on TV or Netflix,” she adds. 

Festival founders Tenzing Sonam (left) and Ritu Sarin (right)

Being filmmakers themselves has somewhat equipped the husband and wife duo to cope with the two hardest aspects of running a festival – raising funds and managing people. They have the brightest and most enthusiastic bunch of college kids clamouring to volunteer with the festival every year. “This year we have around 100 of them. DIFF’s volunteer programme has grown over the years and it’s become almost like an institution. Although it’s very hard to get in. You have to apply and then we interview them. You need special skills to get make it!” says Sonam.

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The programming too has a very distinct slant towards narratives that are strongly personal, rooted and thought-provoking. Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s 2016 documentary Cameraperson was a moving account of disturbing stories from Rwanda, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Israeli filmmaker Yaniv Berman’s Land of the Little People followed a gang of four children from an Israeli army village. And Naeem Mohaiemen’s Tripoli Cancelled documents a week in the life of a man stranded in a decrepit airport. 

“We decided the first year that we didn’t want to slot ourselves and say this is only going to be about Asia or the mountains. But I think we really care about films that talk about current issues and address our reality of today. So even though we don’t start out with any criteria, eventually when the programme is drawn out certain kinds of themes emerge,” explains Sonam.  

Some of the most lauded films to come out of India this year were also screened- Amit Masurkar’s Newton, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan, Malayalam filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Angamaly Diaries and Rima Das’s Village Rockstars. As four days of movies and relaxation came to an end, someone aptly remarked at a closing party, that it’s the long, enthusiastic and sometimes volatile conversations on the movies that will be missed most. 

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