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If You Weren’t At Dharamshala This Weekend, You Missed This Incredible Indie Film Festival

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By Artika Raj

This is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

“Welcome to the first-ever screening of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo,” says Abhay Kumar, the young director of the film ‘Placebo’ that is about to be screened. That sets off the audience, a packed house in an old-style auditorium, into peals of laughter. His greeting is funny not only because of the literal joke therein, but also because PRDP is possibly the perfect example of what an antithesis of his film might look like; loud, steeped in money, a lead actor who draws crowds irrespective of film plot or personal acting skills, and big-big budget that neatly puts it into the ‘commercial’ box.

Abhay’s ‘Placebo’ is a roughly 2 hour-long documentary, shot on a handy-cam over a period of almost a year and a half – that documents lives of students in the premiere hospital of India and the way ‘competition’ has come to dictate their lives, ending many in its harsh wake. The film leaves you shaken, and not just because it’s clear after watching it how ‘fucked up’ the whole system of competition in India is. What’s also ‘fucked up’ is that it doesn’t matter if you weren’t at this particular hospital. If you’ve been a student at any school/college in this country – you’ve experienced the same narrow, stunted, suffocating approach to education. Once the movie ends and the credits finish rolling out, the audience gets up to give Abhay a standing ovation. Visibly emotional, he takes to the podium for the Q&A that follows. For him, this screening is like no other (since it clearly names/shows the institution, possibly controversial; screenings in India so far have been few and in secret) because his parents are here to watch his film for the very first time. Telling the audience that fact, he adds, “So, today is the day I officially become a filmmaker.”

As far a cry from PRDP as there could be.

Photo courtesy: Artika Raj and Kirrat Sachdeva
Photo courtesy: Artika Raj and Kirrat Sachdeva

And that’s just one of over 30 films, shorts, and documentaries that were screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival 2015. In its endeavour of ‘bringing independent cinema to the mountains’, the festival, set in a town that has no cinema theatres of its own, saw a huge gathering of cinema devotees, filmmakers, locals and just about anyone who appreciates the visual medium, cheerfully enjoying cups of chai-coffee as they stood waiting in snaking queues to watch these films. Trudging up and down the mountainous terrain, shunting between the two screening venues, with adequate breaks for local delights of course, the mood in town McLeod Ganj was ‘festive’ alright. And for the next 4 days, stories – multiple and multi-faceted, from different parts of the world, mesmerized us – the audience. With ‘Titli‘ as an opener (a great example of how the alternate and the independent is slowly making inroads into ‘mainstream’ cinema), films from all over the world, equal parts moving, shocking, amusing and deeply un-nerving followed.

If the tale of Tashi Drolma, a 4-year-old Dennis-the-Menace incarnate had us smiling, how Lobsang Phuntsok, the man who set up the Jhamtse Gatsal community for abandoned or underprivileged children where she lives, dealt with her with love and compassion was heart-warming.

To read an interview with the director, head here.
To read an interview with the director, head here.

If one has to understand and appreciate a documentary filmmaker’s art when it comes to having their subject open up to them, give them unconscious insights into their lives that are deeply revealing, Crystal Moselle’s ‘The Wolfpack’ was it. The film follows 6 teen brothers who have led an immensely isolated, almost policed life in their Lower East side NYC apartment, under their father. Their only solace while growing up – movies. From ‘Pulp Fiction’ to ‘Reservoir Dogs’, the boys are shown acting these movies out in minute details. With visits to the outside world restricted to once, twice or not even once every year – the movies they act are their lives. Through deft maneuvering, Crystal gets the boys to talk about what is seemingly ‘normal’ for them just as they begin to venture out into the world. The film is brilliant in the way it never gets invasive, and the skirting around issues of isolation, abuse and confinement is skillfully and impartially done.

Find out what director C had to say about making the movie, here.
Read what director Crystal Moselle had to say about making the movie here.

All the way from Vietnam, ‘Flapping In The Middle Of Nowhere’, was a 98-minute feature film about a girl who is toying with the idea of aborting an unwanted pregnancy and a boyfriend who abandons her only to return to claim revenge as she has meanwhile been interacting in the most unusual way with a man who has a fetish for pregnant women. Shot in incandescent hues of yellow, grey, white and blue – the film is a blur of emotions, complex, and never stable, with an ending that destabilises you for some time to come.

Flapping In The Middle Of Nowhere. Image source: Facebook
Flapping In The Middle Of Nowhere. Image source: Facebook

For those of us who have grown up hearing grandma’s tales, perhaps one of the best films to be showcased was ‘Kothanodi’ – an adaptation of 4 Assamese folk stories that come together in a twisted way at the end, open-ended enough to leave you spinning your own tale about how the stories possibly conclude – just as good folk narratives do. Magic realism is a dominant motif in the film that tracks the life of 4 mothers and their children – one, a cruel stepmother to a docile girl, another who in her greed marries her daughter off to a python, one whose every child has been buried by her husband for a very strange reason till… and last but not the least, Keteki, a woman who gives birth to an outenga (elephant fruit) that follows her everywhere and in the end turns out to be…
Chilling, that’s a one-word description for this beautiful film.

Kothanodi. Image source: DIFF India/Facebook
Kothanodi. Image source: DIFF India/Facebook

If in Dharamshala, it is but natural that the politics of the place, as a refuge for Tibetans, catches up with you. The fluttering prayer flags that blessed the film screening venue (TIPA – Tibetan Centre of performing Arts) also saw a more political take on the situation in the form of ‘Lung Ta’ – a film by Japanese director Kaoru Ikeya. ‘Why do Tibetans choose to set themselves on fire?’ was the question the film sought to answer, as the director followed around Kazuhiro Nakahara, a Japanese architect, and long-time Dharamshala resident who works for the Tibetan government-in-exile. Nakahara, who has been blogging about the almost 150 such cases of self-immolation till date, goes around talking to people, with glimpses of his interaction with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his views on the form of protest, and eventually goes to Tibet to visit the sites where these immolations happened. For a country and a people on the brink of losing their culture and identity, you would think this is a film that would highlight the rage against Chinese oppressors. It does none of that. Instead, it reveals the philosophical and the unshakeable belief in the non-violent form of protest that the Tibetans as a people believe in, so much so that they choose to self-immolate rather than harm anyone in their fight for freedom, even asking others to forgive the Chinese, because what they do is their karma. ‘Victory for Tibet’ is the echoing cry that the film leaves you with, and a silent prayer.

These are just a handful of the selection of films that were screened at DIFF this year, along with a special children’s selection and various panel discussions on filmmaking. ‘The Look Of Silence‘, ‘Chauthi Koot’, the amazing ‘The Internet’s Own Boy – The Story Of Aaron Swartz‘, and ‘Masaan‘ as the closing film are names that can go on any film lover’s must-watch list. As a festival that is championing the cause of independent cinema, DIFF is a champion that this brand of filmmaking definitely needs. Cocooned in our mainstream existence, this is the alternative that challenges our accepted notions of not just cinema but also of viewer perceptions. If you missed it this year, tough luck. But make sure you make it to the next. For if nothing else, there is movies, mountains and more to be enjoyed here, nestled in the midst of the Dhauladhars who play wonderful hosts.

Youth Ki Awaaz is a partner for DIFF 2015.

Editor’s note: The name of the institution featured in ‘Placebo’ has been withheld on the request of the organisers of the festival. 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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