Amid the rush of the 12th Dharamshala International Film Festival at Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) – hopping from one venue to another, making sure the last minute check-ins are in place, attending calls in-between plus meeting old friends and filmmakers – festival director duo Ritu Sonam and Tenzing Sonam managed to sit down for an exclusive chat with Hindustan Times. They talked about the unexpected growth and love the festival has received over the years, and shared at length on what it means to give voice and platform to emerging filmmakers and independent cinema. Here are the excerpts. (Also read: Sthal review: A confident, unsparing look at the reality of Indian match-making)
We are at the 12th edition of Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF). Tell me a little about how your partnership and collaboration has evolved in tandem with the festival.
Tenzing: When we started the festival, Ritu and me, in 2012, the idea at that time was to introduce our local community and give them an opportunity to watch good, independent cinema from India and around the world. It was a community-oriented project that we undertook, also to promote local filmmaking and the awareness around it… That was how we started. Over the years, what’s happened is that DIFF seems to have attracted filmgoers all over the country and that way it has just grown bigger and bigger! We never expected to be the way it has grown!
Ritu: Tenzing and I have been working in films together for more than 30 years and so we already have a very, very old working relationship. We have established our roles already. When it comes to DIFF, it’s been very easy as from the start our roles have been clearly defined. That’s how it has really been.
What role do you think DIFF plays in the current film festival landscape in our country?
Tenzing: What’s unique here about Dharamshala International Film Festival is the fact that Ritu and me are both filmmakers and we ourselves have been to many film festivals… and we understand what it’s like to be on the other side of a festival. Being filmmakers, I think we are also able to win the trust of independent filmmakers so there’s an immediate, shared rapport.
Ritu: I think because its an independent film festival that is run by filmmakers and we ourselves have travelled to so many festivals. I think we understand what kind of platform they need, so I hope that when they come here they get a sense that they are truly welcomed. We feel the same way for the audiences as well, and we very much care for people who love cinema. We hope we have created a space where there’s very good connection between the indie filmmakers and the audiences.
Tell me a little about the programming of DIFF. Is there a framework that both of you keep in mind during the process of selection?
Tenzing: Right from the beginning our sole criterion is that we wanted to showcase independent films that were original in the way they use the cinematic language. That they had something important to share. We had no category, no subject. All these years, we have followed that template. We also do not discriminate between feature films, documentaries, short films, animation, experimental films. Everything is considered. In the beginning it was a curated festival. Ritu and me basically selected the films and programmed them. As the festival grew, we started getting so many submissions! People said, ‘Why can’t we submit? Why is there no submission process?’ So, then we opened it up to submissions maybe 5- 6 years ago! Since then, we have been receiving like huge amount of submissions… so then we formed a programming team! This year for the first time we have Bina Paul, who is the former Artistic Director of the In International Film Festival of Kerala. She has joined us as the director of programming so that has been a wonderful collaboration. She brings so much experience and we share the same values in terms of cinema.
Ritu: So, for the last 11 years, Tenzing and I have been programming the festival ourselves. It’s only this edition that we have Bina Paul. In that way, this year is very new for us. But the way we initially started we thought let us not set clear markers of what kind of films we want to show. We thought let’s leave it open, let’s respond to the kind of films that are made each year. So our selection when it comes to India is corresponding to the kind of films independent filmmakers are making. When it comes to International, it all comes down to what do we love and what can we manage. It depends on what is happening in the world and in what ways we can respond.
We have a very good representation this year on Indian films, with regional cinema and films all over the country and the new possibilities with new technologies and new ways of making cinema are presenting themselves. The means of production are changing. That’s what I see happening happening more and
If I have to take you back to these evolving years of DIFF, what will you pick as some of your memorable moments from the festival?
Tenzing: There have been so many moments that it’s hard to choose! In the early years of DIFF, we were showing films on DVD, that’s how we started! In the very first year of DIFF, we had Hansal Mehta with Shahid. It was a turning point in his career. We had a wonderful experience, his film was the opening night film. So, that was a very memorable moment. Because it was the very first edition, showing films on DVD!
Last year we had Joyland! That was absolutely one of the highlights of DIFF, after we programmed Joyland and we truly loved the film! We had to submit all our films for censor clearance and we were not sure whether we would get it or not because there’s always a question. But wonderfully, we got it and we showed the film and the audience was just… jampacked at the auditorium. We had to bring in mattresses in the front part of the auditorium to accommodate more people and when the film finished, there was a stunned silence and then a huge applause. When the lights came on, people were crying and emotional. It was just amazing to witness. This is what Cinema can do! It can cut across all kinds of barriers and it can touch you at a human level.
Ritu: Joyland was amazing last year! We did a repeat screening and people were crying. It was absolutely incredible.
What is your hope from DIFF in the upcoming years.
Ritu: I hope that we can sustain it, and that’s a very hard job. We do struggle with funds, and teams and I truly hope that we can keep that quality alive. The quality to retain without losing the integrity, intimacy and atmosphere that DIFF has cultivated in these years.
Tenzing: I truly believe film festivals play a really important role especially the ones which focus on independent cinema. Independent filmmakers do not have enough platforms to showcase their films or support. So film festivals like ours are crucial to give them that platform where they can present their films, meet audiences. So really, the hope is that DIFF continues to support independent filmmakers. We are also focusing on the Himalayan region, promoting filmmaking talent from the Himalayan region and that’s something that we really want to pursue more vigorously in the coming years.
The 12th edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival ran from November 4-7, 2023.