DIFF 2015: Ritu & Tenzing On Bringing World Cinema To The Himalayas!

By Yash Thakur. Posted on September 24, 2015

Longtime residents of Dharamshala, the filmmaking couple of Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, who initiated the highly successful Dharamshala International Film Festival with the aim of bringing high quality independent cinema to mountains, are now back with the festival's 4th edition.

In just 4 years of its existence, DIFF has managed to carve out a niche for itself with the kind of films they've screened. On being asked as to what different can the audience expect from the upcoming edition, they excitedly replied: "This year, we have selected an eclectic mix of films that address a range of subjects, from the self-immolations in Tibet to underground musicians of the Arab Spring, from issues of oppression and freedom of speech to social alienation and forms of escapism."

We spoke with Ritu and Tenzing at length on the challenges of running a film festival, the changes in the film industry, the influx of films and filmmakers at Dharamshala and their learnings from the previous editions.

This year, the 4th DIFF will take place from 5-8 November at Mcleodganj, Dharamshala in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Delegate registrations are on and we suggest you book your tickets now to what is one of the most exciting film festivals in India..

Between 2012 to 2015, the film industry has gone under a massive makeover. What are your views on the independent cinema in India as of today?

Yes, there have been a lot of positive developments in the Indian indie film scene over the past few years. A number of independent films have had theatrical releases and done well, hopefully paving the way for more such opportunities. Also, the number of Indian films getting recognition in the big international film festivals has been increasing. All of this is hugely encouraging but we should be under no illusion that it’s becoming easier for indie filmmakers to find funding and distribution. That’s still an uphill struggle.

A lot of things have certainly changed (for better) over the years for DIFF and yourselves as the festival organizers. Take us through a few of the positive outcomes.

The first three years of DIFF had an amazing, positive response from our audiences, the national media and the filmmaking community. The number of people attending the festival has increased over the past three editions, and has included not just locals but film lovers from around the country as well as a good number of international visitors to Dharamshala. We’ve also been able to attract the participation of many Indian and international filmmakers.

Although Dharamshala is a very multicultural and multi-ethnic place, the opportunities for meaningful interaction between its diverse residents is scarce. We’ve tried very hard with DIFF to reach out to them all and one of our achievements has been to bring them all together to enjoy the festival. We’re also thrilled that we were able to launch the DIFF Film Fellows programme last year for aspiring filmmakers from the Himalayan regions. Our hope is to actively encourage more people to take an interest in film as an art form, particularly in our local area and hopefully, we have made a start in achieving this.

DIFF has become one the top festivals in such a short span of time; directors and press are flocking over for the good cinema at a picturesque retreat. Give us a glimpse of how your team has been running this festival over the years.

This year, we are focusing mainly on consolidating what we have learnt from the past three editions and making the festival much more professional and streamlined. We are now trying to make this festival sustainable in terms of funding, as that has always been a big challenge for us. In this regard, we are always on the lookout for sponsors, corporate or otherwise, who share our goal and vision and want to support the festival. We have also been conducting massive outreach programmes, by screening ‘Best of DIFF’ films from our past festivals in cities all over the country, exposing a wider audience to indie cinema. Our plan is to build on the hallmarks that have given the festival its reputation as a fun, adventurous and cutting edge event in the Himalayas – an intimate and carefully curated festival that will attract film lovers from everywhere to our small town.

A special focus at DIFF is developing the filmmaking talent from hilly areas. Tell us a bit about that and how the DIFF Film Fellows program helps these filmmakers.

The DIFF Film Fellows programme provides an opportunity to five aspiring filmmakers from the Himalayan regions of India to attend DIFF, participate in its various events, and have one-on-one mentorship sessions with established filmmakers. By limiting the pool of applicants to participants studying and working in the region, this initiative provides a much-needed opportunity to budding filmmakers who would not otherwise have access to these resources. It also serves as a learning process for both the participants as well as their mentors through the exchange of multiple perspectives and approaches, and building relationships between established and upcoming artists.

Through the course of the programme, young filmmakers broaden their knowledge and understanding of film, hopefully growing into more thoughtful and discriminating artists. At DIFF 2014, five participants were selected from a total of 20 applications by an eminent jury, which included two well-known filmmakers – Hansal Mehta and Anupama Srinivasan – and Bina Paul, the former Artistic Director of the Kerala International Film Festival. This year, our jury includes DIFF co-director Tenzing Sonam, Anupama Srinivasan and Umesh Kulkarni.

Films like Masaan, Arunoday & Court have done wonders this year, opening up a whole new market for 'indie' cinema. How do you think festivals like DIFF help them?

It’s still unusual for an indie film in India to get a wide theatrical release. The films you mention are exceptions to the rule. Independent films often have very small audiences, and festivals like ours are crucial to increase their reach and draw attention to them. We believe that festivals encourage more people to watch indie cinema, which otherwise remains on the fringe. It helps to refute commonly held myths about independent cinema being ‘too serious’ and ‘inaccessible’.

The incredible explosion of independent films in India in the last few years means that there is more need than ever before to have platforms to showcase these films. Festivals like ours provide that space. Also, crucially, it is in festivals like ours that these smaller films have a chance to be noticed by critics and the industry and maybe have the opportunity of gaining wider exposure. Here at DIFF, we hope to play our part in supporting and encouraging this exciting movement.

Is there a specific theme(s) that we are looking at this year? What are you looking forward to this year's DIFF?

We don’t set out with a theme in mind. Instead, our focus is on screening the best of indie films from around the world across feature, documentary, animation and short genres – whatever their themes might be. This year, we have selected an eclectic mix of films that address a range of subjects, from the self-immolation(s) in Tibet to underground musicians of the Arab Spring, from issues of oppression and freedom of speech to social alienation and forms of escapism.

We will be screening Joshua Oppenheimer’s award winning documentaries on the Indonesian genocide, Vietnamese director Nguyen Hoang Diep’s feature film Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, and Sundance award winning film The Wolfpack, among others. In addition to our line-up of documentaries and features, Marathi indie filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni will curate, as he has done for the past two years, a selection of Indian short films to screen at DIFF 2015.

Barring IFFI, MAMI and now DIFF, there are not many high profile film festivals in India (like we see outside). What do you think is the reason for this?

The main reason in our opinion is lack of funding. Even MAMI, which is a prestigious event in the heart of the film world, had a hard time surviving. And for smaller festivals like DIFF, it’s all the more difficult. Even though DIFF has proved to be a viable and successful film festival over the past three editions, it remains a challenge to find the funding to run it. Also, when cultural events like film festivals are held outside the big metros, like DIFF is, it becomes even harder to attract sponsorship. We need more active government funding and corporate sponsorship to encourage the growth of cultural events like film festivals, especially outside the metropolitan areas.

What are your words of wisdom to budding producers, filmmakers and festival runners?

Keep true to your vision, be honest in your work, and be prepared to struggle long and hard with very little hope of any reward other than the immense satisfaction of having overcome all odds to realize your dream! If you are not 100% committed and totally passionate about filmmaking or running a film festival, don't even think of going there! Be prepared to spend a lot of time being frustrated for lack of money but keep at it.


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