Dharamshala International Film Festival Of Mountains and Movies

DIFF in Dharamshala
DIFF in Dharamshala | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

McLeod Ganj doesn’t have a cinema.  It has mountains, waterfalls and little cafés, but McLeod Ganj was never considered a place where film played a special role. This has changed since 2012. That year kicked off the annual DIFF – Dharamshala International Film Festival. It has lifted cinema into the mountains and from November 5th to 8th, 2015, the silver screen replaced the cliff faces as the city’s focal point. 

Organizing a film festival in a place without a cinema is a bold task, one which Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam were faced with. But vast interest has proven them right. Cinema pilgrims flocked to McLeod Ganj to occupy the 500-seat auditorium of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) and to watch films from all over the world. During the festival, the institute, which normally acts to preserve Tibetan art, suddenly becomes a venue for watching international indie films, resounding voices from around the world.
The films span a wide range and provoke the most divers emotions from the audience. They tell stories from India, France, Japan, Sweden and Germany, chasing viewers all the way across the map. The moving image becomes a universally understood language at DIFF, dancing on the viewers’ retinas.
In addition to the international main program and a series of Indian shorts and children’s films. There are also panel discussions, which deal with topics such as “Film and the Female Gaze” and “The new Indian Indiewave” and allow filmmakers to have animated exchanges with each other. On top of that, the festival offers unofficial chances to discuss all the going ons. Prayer flags flutter above niches, tables and campfires, where festival goers sit together, discussing everything they’re seeing in the films. The main program gives the films a face too. Filmmakers often introduce their own work, giving it context and telling the personal story behind it.
Indian filmmaker, Abhay Kumar, enjoyed a lot of popularity this year with his film, Placebo. The film skillfully combines fact and fantasy and channels the viewer through the AIIMS, the All India Institute of Medical Science in New Delhi. In the grey halls and austere dorm rooms, the film meets students where you can see the academic pressure burned into the rings under their eyes. They aimlessly roam around, getting distracted and talking to each other. One student’s suicide turns the lethargy around and the students revolt. The credits roll and the audience surges – a standing ovation for a film that makes you feel academic demands in your bones.
But you can also find lightheartedness. Israeli filmmaker, Talya Lavie, talks about the inspiration for her film, Zero Motivation, which she found on a trip in India. She realized that other travelers whom she met were impressed with her time in the army and avidly demanded she tell stories. The fact that she had an office job in the army didn’t seem to lessen their interest. Tanya Lavie used this to develop her film about two girls that work in an office for the Israeli army – it’s the antithesis to the genre of male dominated army films. Staplers are brandished, shredders get sharpened and bureaucracy becomes a battleground for two girlfriends. It’s funny, it’s painful – the laughter at all of the absurdity gets caught in the throat, just to be jerked loose at the next episode.
McLeod Ganj doesn’t have a cinema, but the Dharamshala International Film Festival is helping to anchor films in these mountains. It does chip at a few places, but you can tell the festival is still growing. The DIFF offers potential to further network filmmakers through workshops and discussion rounds. What’s still missing are workshops and lectures for the visitors interested in film, so they too can spontaneously become part of everything happening and explore their fascination with film. It will be interesting to see how the festival develops. The opening credits just started rolling. The curtain for upcoming years of the film festival is open.