Bringing Independent Cinema to the Mountains: The Story of Dharamshala International Film Festival

December 23, 2020, 8:00am

by Tenzing Sonam

As I write this, India is emerging from nine weeks of lockdown. The surreal rhythm of life that we have grown accustomed to in the shadow of Covid-19 has utterly transformed everything we took for granted just a few short months ago. Even the subject of this essay—a film festival—feels like something from another life altogether, a time when large groups of people interacted without masks or sanitizers or fear of infection, and sat and watched films in movie theatres. The question uppermost on my mind (and perhaps, everyone else’s) at this moment is whether life will ever return to some semblance of that old reality. What will a post-Covid future hold for a community event like Dharamshala International Film Festival, which my partner Ritu Sarin and I founded nine years ago? Our hope is that it will be possible once again to experience films communally in cinemas and that physical film festivals will be restored in the not too distant future. At the same time, the exigencies of the current situation force us to think afresh at an existential level about the nature and role of events such as film festivals, and accordingly plan for a world irrevocably altered by the pandemic. It is as much to help ourselves navigate this new terrain as it is to reflect on film festivals in general that I am writing this account of the personal journey that Ritu and I made in starting a small, independent film festival in a Himalayan town with no cinemas.

Ritu and I moved back to India in 1996, having studied and worked as filmmakers in the US and the UK for the previous eighteen years. Both of us were born and raised in India so this was a homecoming for us. We chose to settle in Dharamshala, a small town in the foothills of the north Indian Himalaya, most famous as the residence of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. As the son of Tibetan refugees, I have been deeply involved in the issues and questions that confront the exile Tibetan community, and Ritu and I have made a number of films that explore the subject. Dharamshala seemed like the perfect place to put down our roots, both as a place to inspire our filmmaking and as a home to bring up our young children. Dharamshala—which means a shelter or a rest house for travellers and pilgrims—has been a crossroads from ancient times. Today, it is a thriving, multicultural and multi-ethnic town, a lively melange of local Indians, Gaddi tribespeople, Tibetan refugees, migrant workers, spiritual seekers, activists, tech entrepreneurs, and long-term settlers from around the world. The town, overlooked by the dramatic Dhauladhar range, is also a popular destination for tourists.

But despite its cosmopolitan character, Dharamshala lacked any kind of meaningful space or platform to showcase contemporary cinema or art. This was not surprising. In India, small towns like Dharamshala, despite being potentially fertile centres of creative activity, are neglected by metro-centric arts institutions and organisations. The longer we lived here, the more we believed that we could do something to redress this balance. As filmmakers, we had travelled to many film festivals, including to a few that were in small, out of the way places – Tromsø in the Norwegian Arctic Circle, Paju Book City next to the DMZ in South Korea, Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon. What we loved about these festivals was their combination of a strong sense of place, manageable size, and intimate atmosphere. We felt that Dharamshala, with its cosmopolitan character and beautiful mountain location, was perfectly suited for a similar event. By starting a film festival, not only would we give something back to the place that we had made our home, we would also create a non-partisan cultural event in which all the diverse residents of the region could participate. This latter point was an important aspect of our thinking. Dharamshala’s sundry communities largely co-existed in parallel worlds with little meaningful contact beyond commercial and service-related interactions. The universal appeal of cinema, we believed, would allow everyone a chance to come together in common celebration.

We discussed the feasibility of this idea with our local friends and  reached out to our wider network in the filmmaking community for feedback and advice. There were many things to think about. Funding, of course, would be critical. The lack of screening facilities was a major hurdle. There was also a more fundamental question: Was there enough of an audience locally to sustain a festival that would only showcase independent films? The response we received was enthusiastic and positive. Our local friends immediately recognised the value of such an event for the region (besides which they were all desperate for a chance to watch good films!) and were ready to support us and get involved. Our filmmaker friends further afield were equally excited. We had underestimated the appeal of Dharamshala as a festival location. Most filmmakers we knew, particularly in India, lived in large cities and the prospect of a break in the mountains together with showing their films to new audiences seemed particularly appealing to them. Film festival directors and programmers we knew were happy to share their expertise and advise us. There is no doubt that the fact that we were filmmakers ourselves lent credibility to our proposal and made it easier to convince people of its viability. People trusted our motivation and there was a sense of solidarity in supporting our venture.

Reassured by this support and goodwill, we decided to take the plunge in 2011. We set up a non-profit trust, White Crane Arts & Media, to promote contemporary cinema, art and independent media practices focusing on the Indian Himalayan region. Its first major project was the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF). We formed a core team with a small group of local friends and began to meet regularly. None of us had ever done anything like this before but we learnt fast and the excitement and adventure of what we were undertaking kept our spirits high. Raising funds was our biggest challenge. We wrote grant proposals, reached out to governmental and non-governmental organisations, and appealed to friends, family and supporters of our personal work for help. After many months, we were able to gather enough money to fund the basic operation of the festival. We gave ourselves a deadline, the fall of 2012.

The auditorium of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, a tin-roofed structure that accommodated 500 tightly squeezed seats, was our preferred choice for the main venue. It was the only space of its size within walking distance of McLeod Ganj, the tourist quarter of Dharamshala where most hotels and restaurants were located. As secondary venues, we took over a local kindergarten and a hotel convention hall and converted them into screening facilities with around 150 seats each. The first edition of DIFF opened on the evening of 1 November 2012. Among the filmmakers who attended were Gitanjali Rao, Hansal Mehta and Umesh Kulkarni from India, Guy Davidi from Israel, Asif Kapadia from the UK, Dain Said from Malaysia, Karim El Hakim from Egypt, and Jennifer Fox from the US. Over the next three days, large numbers of people thronged the venues. We were surprised to discover that our audience included film enthusiasts who had travelled from other parts of the country specifically to attend DIFF. This was our first indication that what we had intended as a local event had struck a larger chord and filled a lacuna in the independent film festival landscape in India. As the festival drew to a close, all of us were overcome by the sheer enormity of what we had accomplished. We also knew that the genie was out of the bottle; DIFF was here to stay.

The overall template that we followed for the first edition of DIFF set the stage for all subsequent editions. One thing we were clear about from the beginning was that as far as possible, we would invite filmmakers to attend and present their films in person. As filmmakers ourselves, we understood the importance of having a direct line of communication with our audiences, and we knew that this would make the difference between simply screening films and having a larger and more lasting impact as a film festival. Over the years, we stuck to this principle and even when our budgets were stretched, we always made this our priority. In retrospect, the presence of filmmakers and their easy access to the audience were key reasons for DIFF’s success. We were also quite sure that we did not want to have a competition section. We wanted DIFF to be purely about the enjoyment of cinema, without the attendant and sometimes divisive distractions of competitions and markets.

Our criteria for the films we selected were simple: Ritu and me agreed that we would only show films that represented, in our opinion, the best examples of contemporary independent cinema. They could be in any style, genre, or language as long as they had a clear authorial vision and a strong undertow of humanistic concern. The films we selected for the first edition hinted at the kind of eclectic programming the festival would become known for. Besides the aforementioned directors who came in person, we included films by Hong Sang-soo, Patricio Guzman, Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr., and Takashi Miike. The range of films we showed did not have anything in common other than the fact that they were deeply personal and idiosyncratic, and were perfectly suited to our goal of showing a cross-section of films that loosely made up the patchwork of independent cinema.

Given Dharamshala’s strategic location as the centre of the international Tibetan freedom movement and our own engagement in political activism, we were instinctively drawn to films that dealt with political conflict, social injustice and issues of identity, migration, and marginalised communities. The Arab Spring was in its early phase when we started DIFF and Karim el Hakim’s ½ Revolution was the first of many films—including The Square, Return to Homs, Yallah! Underground, A Syrian Love Story, and For Sana—that we showed over the years that tracked the highs and lows of this ultimately tragic uprising. The Israel-Palestine conflict was another subject that was of particular interest to us, given its parallels of occupation and repression to the Tibet situation. We showed 5 Broken Cameras in the first edition of DIFF. Its humane and personal approach to a deeply complex problem was exactly the kind of film we looked forward to programming, and we revisited the subject in subsequent editions with films like Omar, A World Not Ours, The Land of Little People, and Screwdriver.

We were also drawn to films about contemporary artists. Too often, the spheres of cinema and art seem to exist in separate bubbles with very little crossover. We had made forays into the art world with our personal work and these experiences had opened our eyes to new ways of thinking, looking, and seeing. We were keen to try and bridge this gap. In fact, in our first year, driven by naiveté and a surfeit of enthusiasm, we even organised an artists’ workshop in the lead up to the festival. In collaboration with Khoj International Artists’ Workshop, we invited 12 artists from India and abroad (including four Tibetan artists) to spend two weeks in Dharamshala and then show the works they created at the festival. The subsequent interaction between the artists and filmmakers was a special experience for both groups and provided enough evidence of the need to create more such connections between the two disciplines. Sadly, as the demands of the festival grew, we found ourselves unable to devote the resources needed to continue with this experiment. However, films by and about artists remain an integral part of DIFF’s programming.

Our first edition included Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, and we followed this over the years with documentaries about, among others, Ai Wei Wei, the Gao Brothers, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Pussy Riot. We also programmed—sometimes to the mystification of our audiences—art and experimental films, including work by artists and filmmakers such as Amar Kanwar, Harun Farocki, Laurie Anderson, Naeem Mohaimen, Shezad Dawood, Tan Pin Pin and Thomas Heise. One year, we tied up with Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, with whom we had a long relationship through our personal work and screened a selection of single-channel video installations from its collection. Our aim was to introduce our largely unsuspecting audiences to films that stretched the boundaries of the cinematic language and showed unexpected and alternative ways of communicating ideas and telling stories through the visual medium. This is a tough ask for audiences who normally have very little exposure to such films, but it is our hope that by persisting with such programming, we can have an incremental impact in broadening horizons.

Closer to home, our initial line-up also included a strong suite of films that showcased the new wave of Indian independent cinema that was beginning to make its mark both domestically and internationally. Not only did these films herald the arrival of iconoclastic new talent that provided welcome relief from a cinema landscape dominated by Bollywood and other regional film industries, they touched upon subjects that mainstream cinema shied away from and were often considered taboo: caste oppression, religious discrimination, women’s rights, etc. We did not realise it then, but this marked the beginning of a special relationship between DIFF and Indian indie filmmakers who made the festival their own. For many filmmakers in India, film festivals are the only viable option to show their films in a cinema context. They are also one of the few spaces where regional filmmakers who make films in their own languages can access each other’s films, subtitled in the commonly understood language of English. Until recently, there has only been a handful of film festivals in India, the majority of which are funded and organised by governmental organisations. The launch of DIFF coincided with the start of a new movement of smaller, independently run film festivals that cropped up across the country.

Over the years, DIFF hosted some of India’s most promising new filmmakers. They include: Bhaskar Hazarika, Bornila Chatterjee, Chaitanya Tamahane, Devashish Makhija, Gurvinder Singh, Kanu Behl, Kislay, Konkona Sensharma, Lijo Jose Pellisery, Nagraj Manjule, Neeraj Ghaywan, Nitin Kakkar, Pushpendra Singh, Q, Raam Reddy, Rima Das, Ruchika Oberoi, Shubhashish Bhutiani, Umesh Kulkarni, and Prateek Vats. And for the same reasons that attracted filmmakers to DIFF, some of India’s best-known film writers and critics were also drawn to the festival. Their presence, along with the filmmakers, catalysed opportunities for the exchange of reflections and ideas, and enabled us to organise talks and panel discussions that took a pulse on the state of independent cinema in India. These writers and filmmakers have become some of DIFF’s staunchest ambassadors and are responsible in no small measure for the goodwill and reputation that the festival enjoys.

For the first seven years until 2018, DIFF was a curated festival. We had a strict policy of not accepting submissions, although if we received an unsolicited submission, we made sure we watched it. Our final selection was made from a long list of films that we put together each year. These were films that we had seen ourselves in other film festivals, or that we had heard or read about and felt were suitable for DIFF, or titles that were recommended to us by other filmmakers and festival programmers. Helped by a small team of likeminded cinephiles, we whittled this long list down to the final selection of around 26 narrative features and documentaries. Of course, not every film on our short list could be included for reasons beyond our control: some films required an Indian premiere and preferred one of the larger festivals to ours; others were out of our reach on account of their exorbitant screening fees; sometimes, filmmakers we specifically wanted to attend with their films couldn’t make it; and so on. Besides our feature line-up, DIFF’s shorts and children’s films programmes are an integral part of the programme. For several years now, these have been curated separately by two long-term friends and supporters of the festival: filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni, who has been championing the short film movement in India, and children’s film specialist, Monica Wahi. As the festival became more established, we started receiving more and more unsolicited submissions, until it became clear that we needed to formalise the procedure. Last year, for the first time, we opened DIFF to submissions through FilmFreeway and set up a small team to review the 350 odd films that we received.

Early on, we realised that one of DIFF’s biggest challenges was to try and reach out to our local community. Unlike many other parts of India where contemporary forms of art, theatre, literature, and even cinema, have developed over time and have their own histories and traditions, Himachal Pradesh being a relatively tiny state, primarily rural and geographically mountainous, has lagged behind in this regard. There is no film industry where we live and very little exposure to cinema outside of Bollywood and TV soap operas. If we wanted to attract a strong local audience to DIFF, we had to be proactive in our outreach efforts and actively engage in ways of developing a culture of watching non-mainstream films. To this end, we organised screenings at local schools and colleges, and during the festival, provided students with free tickets to selected screenings. We also tied up with a local NGO, Jagori, which works on rural and women’s issues, and held special screenings followed by mediated discussions in a number of villages. We  showed films to the inmates of the Dharamshala District Jail and were pleasantly surprised by their enthusiastic and thoughtful response. One year, at the post-screening Q&A of the film Fandry, which powerfully deals with caste discrimination, a passionate discussion ensued between the director Nagraj Manjule and college students who recognised similar disparities in their own communities but had never confronted the issue openly. At another screening, students sat through the activist filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s 3-hour opus on Dalits in Bombay—Jai Bhim Comrade—and engaged in a lengthy discussion with him afterwards. These and many other similar examples reinforced our faith in the power of good cinema to shift perspectives and provoke reflection and debate no matter who the audience is.

Another initiative—the DIFF Film Fellows, which we started in 2014—is aimed at encouraging and developing local filmmaking talent. Five young filmmakers are selected by a jury of filmmakers and film professionals to attend DIFF, participate in its various events, and receive one-on-one mentorship with established directors. Initially, this programme was aimed at applicants from the entire Indian Himalayan region, an area we felt was disadvantaged when it came to access to facilities for studying filmmaking. In 2018, we decided to concentrate only on applicants from our own state as we realised that we were trying to cater to a much larger demographic than we could usefully serve. Interestingly, this initiative has been a learning process for both participants and their mentors, and has helped to build relationships between established and upcoming filmmakers. A few  DIFF Film Fellows have embarked on filmmaking careers and have made, or are in the process of making, their first features.

Despite DIFF’s success over the past eight years, funding continues to remain the elusive constant. As a festival situated in a small town, far from the centres of commerce and power, and as an event that is resolutely committed to eschewing the glitz and glamour associated with bigger film festivals, DIFF provides little incentive to corporate sponsors. The Himachal Pradesh government was instrumental in giving some financial backing, but our support has also come from individual donors and NGOs, and from strategic partnerships and tie-ups with foreign embassies and cultural centres. The uncertainties of funding cycles mean that this support has to be pursued and renegotiated every year. Currently, the DIFF team works like a pop-up: coming alive for a few months before the festival, working in a concentrated manner until the festival is over and then going into hibernation for the rest of the year. It is clear that this model is untenable in the long run. Last year, for the first time since the festival was founded, the state government unexpectedly withdrew its support and stopped our funding. This not only left us in the lurch but was also deeply demoralising. We had painstakingly built DIFF over the years and established it as one of India’s most visible and best-known film festivals and yet, our funding situation was more precarious than ever.

Over the years, as the demands of running the festival mounted, we found less and less time to focus on our personal film work. On a number of occasions, we discussed the possibility of stepping back from the active running of the festival and even, when funding uncertainties added immense pressure to our already stressful workload, stopping it altogether. But we always ended up deciding that DIFF was worth the time, effort, and occasional frustration it entailed. Now, the sudden withdrawal of state funding made us think that perhaps, the time had finally come to call it quits. We weighed up the pros and cons as objectively as we could, and discussed our options with close friends and DIFF supporters. Their advice was clear: we could not just close the festival. Somehow, we had to keep it going. DIFF was no longer just about Ritu and me. An entire network—an ecosystem even—had evolved around the festival. The growing number of DIFF alumni filmmakers, the festivalgoers who came back year after year, and the ever expanding and closely connected web of volunteers, long term partners and collaborators, all believed they had a stake in the festival. We made the decision to continue. To make up for the shortfall in funding, we cut back on some of DIFF’s ancillary activities, including the Film Fellows programme. DIFF 2019 turned out to be our most successful edition and registered nearly 9000 viewers over three and a half days, a jump of nearly 2000 over the previous year! It was the strongest vindication yet that we had to keep DIFF alive.

Following the festival, we brainstormed, enlisted the involvement of long-term DIFF supporters, launched a Friends of DIFF campaign, set up an advisory board, and made fresh plans to fund-raise and find ways of making the festival self-sustaining. Just as we were building up a head of steam, the coronavirus pandemic descended and stopped us in our tracks. It forced us to rethink our lives at multiple levels. As far as DIFF was concerned, it was clear that we would not be able to hold a physical festival this year. As soon as the severity of the lockdown sank in, we thought of ways in which could contribute something positive and uplifting, and settled on the idea of a DIFF Viewing Room. The idea was to offer a free online viewing platform where select films from previous editions would be on offer. We reached out to our alumni filmmakers and their positive response made it possible to launch the initiative, the first of its kind in India. The DIFF Viewing Room has been operational for the past three months and has proved surprisingly popular, reaching audiences far beyond our usual network. This reminded us of the power of the internet to connect people and made us seriously look at the possibility of taking DIFF online.

Even though we watch the majority of films we select for DIFF online, we have an in-grained and perhaps, old-fashioned, belief that films can only properly be experienced in a cinema, and that the raison d’être of film festivals is precisely to make this possible. Now, the pandemic was challenging us to think beyond this restrictive view. Our experiment with the Viewing Room had shown us how the internet can be creatively harnessed to our advantage. Certainly, the possibility of reaching a wider pool of audiences is an attractive one. Taking the festival online also means realigning its priorities so that the quality of programming becomes its most important feature. DIFF’s idiosyncratic selection of films, especially in the Indian context, has always been one of its key characteristics and an online version, for many reasons, would allow us greater flexibility and choice in terms of the films we could programme. Logistically, the process of taking a film festival online has also simplified. In response to the growing move by film festivals around the world to go online, new systems have developed that simplify their virtual delivery. These take into account factors like geo-blocking, limiting the number of ticket sales, facilitating online filmmaker interactions, etc., and make it much easier to organise and manage an online film festival. And finally, shorn of the responsibilities of mounting a physical event with all its attendant costs, an online version would also be more economical.

Taking these factors into consideration and given the continuing uncertainty around the pandemic, we have decided to take DIFF online this year. We will explore ways to continue our community projects and maintain a local presence while we make this move. DIFF’s unique appeal will always remain its physical location and its intimate and interpersonal character, and we are hopeful for a return to some version of a physical film festival in the near future, but at the same time, a virtual iteration may be here to stay in the long run. Perhaps, like so many other activities in our modern lives that have relocated online, film festivals too, will have to carve out a cyber presence. The best model for the future may necessarily be a hybrid one—a combination of the physical and the virtual. For us, this may be the beginning of a whole new chapter in the continuing evolution of DIFF.


Tenzing Sonam was born in Darjeeling, India, to Tibetan refugee parents. He is a filmmaker, writer and artist, and is currently based in Dharamshala, India. Tenzing and his long-term partner, Ritu Sarin, work through their independent film company, White Crane Films, and have been making films and artworks together for more than 30 years. Their work includes award-winning documentaries, two narrative features and a number of video installations. Their most recent feature film, The Sweet Requiem, premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Their latest solo art exhibition, Shadow Circus, was shown at Savvy Contemporary in Berlin as part of the 2019 Berlinale Forum Expanded. They are the founders and directors of the Dharamshala International Film Festival, one of India’s leading independent film festivals.