Q&A with DIFF Festival Directors Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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Q&A with DIFF Festival Directors Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin

Q&A with DIFF Festival Directors Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin
DIFF Directors Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin
(Dharamshala International Film Festival)

Last weekend, the Himalayan hill town of McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh experienced an unexpected surge of tourists at a time when it usually undergoes a lull in tourism before the off-season begins in winter. No, the congregations from not just Delhi and Chandigarh but from as far as Mumbai, Kolkata, and other parts of India as well as from around the world hadn’t gathered here simply for the last warm sun and cool breeze. Neither had they come for the sole purpose of sight-seeing, paying their respects at the Dalai Lama’s home and monastery or embarking on the famous Triund hill trek. In fact, armed with a jhola containing a brochure, note-pad, pen and schedule, these visitors made their way to the auditorium of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) or to the hall of the town’s Club House. Here they were joined by the locals, and together, over the four days from November 1 to 4, watched over 25 documentary and feature films from India and abroad, interacted with filmmakers, engaged in camaraderie and took part in other activities of the first-ever Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).

Brainchild of the filmmaker husband-wife duo Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, DIFF aspires to provide a platform to showcase and promote contemporary art, cinema and independent media practices in a region that remains largely isolated from these. The first edition of the festival has received an encouraging response from not just regular festival goers but also from filmmakers, the media, and more importantly from the locals as well. ARTINFO India caught up with Sonam and Sarin in an informal chat about their lives, works and their new baby—DIFF.  

Ritu and Tenzing, tell me where did you begin from? What are your backgrounds?

Sarin: My family was from Dharamshala but I never really lived here even when I was growing up. My father had a job which caused us to move around. I saw my first alternate film when I was quite young and even though I didn’t understand what I was seeing, I found it so intriguing. When we were growing up, our lives were kind of predetermined – you didn’t have many options, you were probably going to do your bachelors and get married etc. So watching these alternate films sort of opened up a whole new world for me.

I studied economics at Miranda House in Delhi, Tenzing was in St. Stephen’s and we met in the second year of college and were friends for a long time before we started going out together. I got a job with the tea board of India and was posted in Brussels when I travelled across Europe and saw more and more films and had a lot of exposure to cinema. So I thought of studying film and thereafter went to art school in California and did a Masters in Fine Arts, specializing in film and video.

Tenzing and I re-met there and we started working on our first documentary together. That was a long time ago in the 80’s and the documentary was about the Sikh communities in northern California. It was called “The New Puritans – The Sikhs of Yuba City”, and was one of the earliest films about the Indian immigrant community and their experiences, generational conflicts and what it all meant.

Sonam: I was born and brought up in Darjeeling. My parents were Tibetan refugees who moved from Tibet after the Chinese occupation. After school, I came to Delhi and studied Economics at St. Stephen’s and like Ritu I too didn’t know what I was doing at the time. After my BA, I came to Dharamshala and worked for the Tibetan Government in-exile for over a year.

After that I left India and travelled to Switzerland for six months, then moved to America and lived in many different places before finally ending up in Berkley where I did a Masters in Journalism. I opted for the Broadcast journalism stream and at the same time I discovered cinema in a big way. Ritu and I were in touch constantly even when we left Delhi and were traveling to different places. So once in California we ended up making our first student film together, which was also our thesis project actually.This was unusual because I was in UCB and she was in the California College of the Arts, but our teachers allowed it.

After graduation we moved to England and lived in London for nine years. We initially worked for a small company and then set up our own company called White Crane Films under which we have made all our films since 1990. We started making documentary films for the BBC and also made a Tibetan feature film called “Dreaming Lhasa”. It was set in Dharamshala and was about the Tibetan exile experience. It was about a Tibetan-origin filmmaker from the US who comes here to shoot a film.She meets a guy who comes from Tibet, learns about his story and helps him in his search for an object. It showed at the Toronto International Film Festival, San Sebastian Film Festival and had a theatrical release in the US as well.

What brought you back to Dharamshala?

Sarin: We have been here for 16 years now and there were two reasons we came back. One is that our material, the subject matter we are working on, is here and it’s good to be around it and aware of what’s happening so that we understand it better. Secondly we have two small kids and we wanted them to learn Hindi and Tibetan.

How is the cinema scene in Dharamshala? Is there an industry here?

Sonam: There is no industry here but there are some Tibetan filmmakers making films and videos and producing them on CDs or DVDs for the locals. In fact, there are even no theatres here. There are a few video parlors in McLeod Ganj where you can watch pirated copies of Bollywood and Hollywood movies but there are no cinemas at all. There have been a few Tibetan feature films made mostly as a hobby but no one makes a living out of it here.

What was the idea behind the Dharamshala International Film Festival? How did that come about?

Sarin:We have been thinking about it for many years now, since we love films and think it’s a great medium to expose people to the world outside and to inspire them. There’s such a lack of cultural activity in this area that we thought we should do something. But it was only about a year and a half ago that we actively started pursuing it and for the last six months have been working on it full time. We started a trust called the White Crane Arts and Media Trust to manage all the activities. Its first two projects were an artists’ residency in collaboration with (Delhi-based) Khoj International Artists’ Association, and the film festival.

Sonam: The idea was to promote contemporary art and cinema in the area and at the same time expose the local people here to what’s out there in the world because people here don’t get any such chance. And it’s not just Dharamshala but we were thinking in terms of the entire Himalayan area.

The second thing was that we thought that Dharamshala is such an amazing place with such an unusual mix of people who live here but it was lacking some kind of an event…an international event that could capitalize on its assets. So a film festival seemed like a good choice for us.

Was it a conscious decision to hold the film festival at this time when the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI-MFF) just ended and the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa is about to begin?

Sarin: Not really. The timing was decided keeping in mind about what was happening in this area. Because we didn’t want to have it at too busy a tourist time as it gets very crowded and on the other hand, we wanted to have it at a time which would give a boost to tourism. November is a lovely month with good sunshine and cool breezes just before the winter sets in. So we just chose it for local reasons.

Sonam: It does seem like its sandwiched between MAMI and IFFI but it was not a conscious effort. It just turned out that way.

Tell me more about the artists’ residency.

Sonam: The idea, as I said before, was to expose locals here to contemporary art. So we had two local artists, two Tibetan established contemporary artists from abroad and a bunch of well-known Indian artists like Tejal Shah and others, an Afghani artist, one Polish artist and two Mongolian artists participating in it. The aim was to bring the international artists to Dharamshala and expose them to the art practices of this area and in turn the Tibetan artists could be exposed to the possibilities that contemporary art provides, so that they could broaden their practices.

Sarin: They managed to create some fantastic work together while having an amazing time here. You see those prayer flags over there…that was a collaboration between a Tibetan artist from here and a Tibetan artist from San Francisco. Those aren’t real prayer flags – they have poetry written in English and have Mickey Mouse drawn on them. Then there were all these art pieces, photographs, installations etc shown at three or four different places around the town.

What were the criteria for selecting the films that are being screened here?

Sarin: I think we kind of knew the audience here and part of it was also out of our own interests. We decided to have as many documentaries as there were features. We tried to get the films where we knew the filmmakers could make it too. We also chose certain themes like art, spirituality, political activism – kind of a mixed bag of really good films made in the last two years.

Sonam:We also want to do something with films made in the Himalayas and promote Himalayan filmmakers – give them special support or showcase their films in a designated category – but that will be next year. This year we wanted to keep the slate open and not put the films in any thematic constraints, but just try and get the best films out there within our budgets and means. We reached out to film festival directors, programmers, filmmakers and asked them about their recommendations that we should show here. That is how we shortlisted the films and ended up with mostly feature-length films and documentaries and two shorts.

So there will be a next year as well?

Sonam: Of course! We have got great response this time – the halls are running full, we have had very engaging Q&A sessions, the filmmakers are very happy to be here as well. Its sort a funky festival but done with a lot of love. We have had a steep learning curve so we might just as well put that into good practice again.

Sarin:Dain Said (Malaysian filmmaker) put the entire experience in one sentence and said, “This is not a film festival. It is a love affair with cinema.” So we will be back with this affair again next year.

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