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

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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.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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