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

Posted on November 8, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

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.