Drowning in Film

Two film festivals in ten days. With a brief intermission for some spiritual nourishment from the Dalai Lama. What an experience in Dharamsala!

First up was the Tibetan Film Festival, featuring films made by Tibetan directors, and run jointly with a screening in Zurich. Some of the most interesting films were the short films and the closing night picture, called ‘Old Dog’. The short films in competition all dealt with the theme of courage. The films ranged in quality from films made by local students, to very accomplished shorts directed by Tibetans living across the world. The second prize winning film was made by a local film student, entitled ‘Can Anyone Hear Me’. It dealt with a young man’s struggle with the idea of self-immolating in the hope of drawing attention to the Tibetan drive for freedom. More than 60 Tibetans have self-immolated in the past 2 and a half years.

‘Old Dog’ was an equally bleak film which told the story of an old nomadic Tibetan man’s loyalty to his old sheepdog. The dog is now a highly prized fashion accessory for rich Chinese businessmen. The film was made in Tibet by writer turned director Pema Tseden. In some ways, you could see ‘Old Dog’ as a modern ‘Crucible’.

The second film festival was an entirely different experience. Also organised by two Dharamsala locals, the Dharamsala International Film Festival had the slogan of bringing independent cinema to the mountains. It also drew some amazing directors here to introduce their films and even give masterclasses about their craft. For only 600 rupees ($12) I had a delegate pass for the entire festival, and could watch as many films as I liked, as well as attending the Masterclasses. The opening night film, ‘Shahid’, was introduced by its director, Hansal Mehta, who also stayed for a Q&A afterwards. It was inspired by the true story of a Muslim Mumbai man who turns away from the fundamentalism of his youth and becomes a leading pro bono criminal lawyer, who ran a number of successful defences for people wrongfully accused of terrorism. It was a strange coincidence for the film to be so relevant to me – I knew nothing about it beforehand.

I attended a masterclass with Jennifer Fox, an American documentary film-maker, the next evening. The session was entitled, ‘One Person, One Camera’ and was attended by about 60 people, including local film students and an assortment of blow-ins and Dharamsala tourist odd-bods, like me. The two hour session delved into the challenges and rewards of documentary film-making without a crew. Jennifer spoke about some of the technical issues that need to be dealt with (sound, lighting, etc) as well as the personal or mental state necessary for developing a real connection with your subject. It was a fantastic insight into a highly successful director’s experience, and quite wonderful for a pleb like me to be able to attend.

The next day was the premiere of ‘When Hari Got Married’, a documentary made by the organisers of DIFF about the arranged marriage of a local man. The TIPA hall was packed with people eager to see their boy on screen. After that I rushed down the hill to attend a Masterclass with Asif Kapadia, the British director of the hugely popular documentary, ‘Senna’, about the Brazilian Formula One driver. Once again, we had about 2 hours of the 40 year old directors views on the differences and similarities between directing fiction and non-fiction. At the time of the class, I hadn’t actually seen the doco, nevertheless it was a privilege to hear the voluble Asif give us his thoughts on film-making and hear about the challenges he faced in making a documentary about an icon within a field which people either love or hate. Asif introduced the screening the next day, and despite being more of hater than lover of Formula 1, it was a brilliant film.

The closing night film, ‘Miss Lovely’, I think also screened at MIFF this year. There were technical difficulties part way through the screening and in my view, it would have been better if the projector had not been fixed. It was a violent film about the seedy side of Bollywood, set in the 70s/80s. An Indian man who struck up a conversation with me on the way back down the hill (and gaining the benefit of my torchlight) explained that it was a film made more for the festival circuit rather than for the local market. He said that in the past, Indian movies for film festivals would be about poverty, slums or health problems. Now they are about sex and violence.

Compared to the ever-expanding MIFF, DIFF was a personal, in some ways intimate, experience which gave me the chance to meet some interesting fellow film buffs and hear first hand from leaders in their field. The Tibetan Film Festival likewise gave me the chance to learn more about the culture of Tibet and benefit from the Q&A sessions after the film with the views of Tibetans, Indians and other foreigners. Sitting in a dark cinema for two hours won’t change the world, but it gave me some great insights.

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