This Film Festival Wasn’t Just About Entertainment. It Asked Really Uneasy Questions

Posted on November 7, 2016 in Culture-Vulture, Stories by YKA

By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Buddhist prayer flags hanging from a tall pole in the centre of a courtyard with a stage in the background.
DIFF was held at the Tibetan Children’s Village in McLeodganj this year from November 3 to 6. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

As the credits rolled at the end of ‘Sonita’, a documentary based on a teenage Afghan immigrant who aspires to be a rapper, the audience erupted in applause that did not end for several minutes. When the director, Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, appeared on the dais, she got a standing ovation.

Not everybody in the audience was expected to know the political complexities that shape Afghan lives or Afghan lives in Iran- where the eponymous protagonist of the movie was based when Maghami started filming her- but the message nonetheless got through. This is also what actor-director Naseeruddin Shah reiterated to explain what good cinema means on the last day of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (November 3-6), where ‘Sonita’ was screened a day earlier. The festival was held at the Tibetan Children’s Village in McLeodganj this year.

Humanisation is the central concern of mankind, the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire said, beginning his influential ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. It is not strange then that the theme dominated the films being screened at DIFF, as they usually do. That this now 5-year-old festival is held in Dharamshala, the government headquarters of an exiled populace, is not mere coincidence.

This was the reason perhaps why when Tenszin Dasel, one half of the director duo behind ‘Royal Café’, saw the packed audience, she couldn’t help but get emotional while describing how she came to pursue filmmaking. She is an alumnus of the school where the festival was being hosted and her sense of returning to a home of sorts was not lost on anybody. Her short film, borrowed loosely from her own aspirations of becoming of a filmmaker, is set in Paris and describes the lives of ordinary Tibetans-in-exile there.

The theme repeated itself multiple times during the four-day festival. ‘Ten Years’, a portmanteau of five Hong Kong films made on a shoestring budget, imagines the region’s development to a dystopia if it doesn’t get independence. Chow Kwun-wai, one of the five directors attending the festival, said that people in Hong Kong even joke that the film is not the future but the truth as it is unfolding there today.

With a powerful depiction of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, the scary implications of the ongoing efforts at homogenising the population, the dread of losing an entire culture- the film touched the audience, despite the technical flaws that Kwun-wai said the film had. In Hong Kong, where the film has been screened by the directors at several places after theatres stopped screening it due to intervention by the Chinese government, ‘Ten Years’– despite its bleak outlook- has inspired hope. The strain of resistance- like a literal silver lining- expresses itself in the very existence of the film, Kwun-wai explained, even as the oppression continues.

Emir Baigazin’s ‘The Wounded Angel’, second in a trilogy, traces the lives of four 13-year-old boys in post-Soviet Kazakhstan of the mid-1990s. Set in a town of working-class people, the movie explores how teenagers experience the world around them. With factories shut down, the protagonists are expected to assist in running the household. Thrust into the role of a grown-up, they battle their own values to adjust to the norms that govern the world. Probably the director’s own alter egos, the characters’- all played by non-actors- nostalgia for their lost childhood hits home when they unite in prayer with Schubert’s rendition of Hail Mary (Ave Maria).

Two persons sitting on a stage as an audience looks on.
Naseeruddin Shah in conversation with Rajeev Masand at the House of Peace. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

A series of Indian short films were also a major attraction at the festival. There was ‘The Threshold’– about a young person discovering their queerness; ‘Ghuspaithiya’– based on the recent news of a pigeon captured on the suspicion of being an infiltrator; ‘Leeches’, which tells the story of a Muslim woman trying to save her sibling from being married off in teenage; etc.

This is not all though that transpired at DIFF. With 43 films from 21 countries, video installations, community outreach events, and more- there was more than enough for everybody, whatever their taste and interests in cinema may be. In the festival-directors’ effort towards creating purposeful dialogue through cinema, DIFF continues to be a socially-meaningful festival too.

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