The Dharamshala International Film Festival Goes Digital | Verve Magazine
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November 12, 2020

The Dharamshala International Film Festival Goes Digital

Text by Asad Ali

Held every year since 2012 in McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, DIFF’s 2020 slate was presented through an online edition that ran from October 29th-November 8th. We speak to the co-founder Tenzing Sonam and a group of long-time attendees about navigating the transition

India’s first globally competitive film festival – the third edition of the International Film Festival of India, New Delhi, 1965 – had all the trappings of bureaucratic importance. It was the first major institutional push to expand the landscape of cinema in India. The President and the Vice-President, Indira Gandhi (then minister of Information & Broadcasting), the mayor of Delhi, and the chief ministers of Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra were all in attendance. And, as the festival wound up, the critic Edith Laurie, in a 1965 edition of Film Comment, wrote that “… after a frenetic month of sold-out houses… some people asked: Would there be another film festival? Others asked: Should there be? India must decide.”


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Fifty-five years on, film lovers in the country face a socio-cultural enquiry along similar lines, one that is born out of radically different circumstances. As lockdown measures in response to the coronavirus kicked in, movie theatres and, inevitably, film festivals came to a grinding halt. The restrictions may have eased up, but the logistical nightmare of organising a post-COVID film festival remains. Now, faced with a new “normal”, many are contemplating transposing the experience from a physical to a digital space, even as they wonder if this shift may just be a more permanent one. The Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), an annual affair since 2012 in McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, was among the first prominent Indian festivals to take the leap of faith.

Considering how the allure of their destinations heightens the experience of attending events like DIFF or the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) for instance, these festivals are unique markers of the ongoing digital transformation.

Talking about DIFF’s origins, film-makers and co-founders Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin remember how it all began as an endeavour to kickstart local conversations around cinema and culture: “We moved to Dharamshala in ’96 and slowly realised that there wasn’t much happening in the area in terms of contemporary cultural activities. Around 2010, we began actively thinking about starting a small film festival, primarily to give our local audience the opportunity to watch non-commercial, independent films,” they say. “It seemed like film lovers across the country were simply waiting for a festival like DIFF, which combined good curation with a beautiful location.”

Sonam elaborates, “Dharamshala’s, and specifically McLeod Ganj’s, appeal as a destination was definitely an important factor in DIFF’s success”. Equally significant, was its strong film selection and the “personal interactions that took place”. However, he adds that, for them, showcasing cinema on the big screen as a collective experience has always been critical. “Ritu and I come from a time when watching films in an auditorium was sacrosanct, and we wanted very much to replicate that aspect in our festival…deciding to go online this year was tough,” he says. Although digital mediums offer a flexibility of viewing, their downsides become apparent quickly. Sonam says that the “closest personal interactions we were able to achieve in our digital edition of DIFF were in our live Zoom conversations, where the audience could participate in real-time. But even then, nothing can really replace the intimacy and immediacy of a physical film festival.”

Actor Adil Hussain, who has been attending DIFF since its early days, says, “It’s simple: people want to meet people. Me video calling my mom and going to visit her are both vastly different experiences. Physical interactions entail not just seeing and hearing someone but also experiencing the other person’s fullness of being… there’s no substitute for that.” Another DIFF regular since 2015 (and curator of its Children’s Film Section), and the founder-director of the Southasian Children’s Cinema Forum, Monica Wahi says that she was “smitten by the vibe Ritu and Tenzing have been able to create”. Speaking about the general landscape of film festivals, she says, “Logically, you may be able to find ‘everything’ online, but how will you even know what to look for if festivals don’t first bring your attention to them? This is especially true of new artists.” Physical festivals, she reflects, “enrich our experience of cinema as art, as practice, as politics and as a way of life. Comparing and discussing the films you have just watched, or the talks and workshops you have attended, all lead to a deeper understanding of and attachment to this world.”


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An award-winning film-maker, archivist and restorer, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur also echoes the sentiment that the film festival is a crucial tangible cultural space. “Especially in a country like India where mainstream cinema has historically dominated cinemas, and even television, opportunities to watch independent films, documentaries, experimental and world cinema were rare,” he says. Dungarpur recalls the instance when he was a film student and the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was the chief guest at the International Film Festival in Kolkata in 1994. “I still remember the excitement of planning the trip to Kolkata just to be in the same city as him and hoping to meet him…the unforgettable moment when he walked in and the whole auditorium was on its feet to give the master a standing ovation.”

National Award-winning film critic CS Venkiteswaran addresses the intensity of the entire exercise of attending a screening, which involves an investment of time and intellect. He explains that the onset of digital meant a proliferation of films and better access. But, the “kind of poverty [cinema spaces] or [non]availability of films”, which Venkiteswaran and his contemporaries had to navigate, meant that the “analogue generation” was gifted with “a certain quality of attention”. He continues, “When we attended a film festival, we prepared for it and gave our full efforts towards watching the film in that moment. In the digital era, you know you can always watch it later, so the intensity of watching does get diluted in the process.”


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While Sonam believes online iterations of film festivals are here to stay, he adds that the future might see “hybrid events where we will have a physical component but also an online one.”

Eminent Malayalam film-maker and Padma Shri-winner Shaji N Karun says that film festivals serve a larger function beyond screening movies. “They have a social relevance; they are indicative of the fact that the medium of cinema is growing and of the ways such growth is happening. In that sense, taking festivals online is a disaster.” Noted social scientist Dr Shiv Visvanathan is even less charitable. He feels that online versions of film festivals are mutants: “They are mutants of the traditional forms of cinema consumption. A friend who teaches law told me how his online classes have no sense of theatre…. Similarly, online film festivals rob the sense of theatre.” And, in an orally-geared country like India, he says, they don’t offer the same dollop of gossip and buzz as physical festivals. Karun provides a middle-ground of sorts. He compares COVID-19 to a world war and says, “Many of the major film festivals stopped during the World Wars – Cannes, Berlin, for instance. Abstaining from festivals during a time like this, in my opinion, is a much more honourable way to address the problem than compromising.”

Umesh Kulkarni has been attending DIFF since its inception, and the National Award-winning director says that the festival has a unique texture to it – and not just because of the location. “For instance, the fact that there was no competitive category to chase – it’s an important decision the organisers took which made it even better,” he says. Kulkarni was so taken by DIFF that he decided to curate the festival’s short films from the second year on. And, according to him, two things fundamentally differentiate online viewing: the location and people. There’s a sense of engagement with both, whether it is DIFF, IFFI Goa or IDSFFK. “If you are in, say, Kerala, you are watching films while being aware of the joy of others who are enthused about watching the same films. That’s something that’s irreplaceable.”

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