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In March of 2020, around the time India went into a nationwide lockdown in response to the rise in COVID-19 cases, the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) set up an online viewing room to screen films that had played at its previous editions. The initiative was of course intended to bring viewers some respite and remind them of connections at a time of immense confusion and fear. But with alumni filmmakers and audiences participating enthusiastically, as viewers logged in from around the world, the move also became an early precursor to the virtual edition it would hold later in the year. DIFF Talks, a series of online conversations hosted by the festival through this period and held with filmmakers and collectives whose works had been featured in it also became a way for DIFF to keep conversations around cinema alive, all the while underscoring the need for creativity and community during a seemingly indefinite period of stagnation and isolation.

In India, film festivals have traditionally been at the mercy of a variety of factors from the lack of substantial government support to those, the availability of screens for instance, which are steered by the larger demands and mechanisms of its powerful commercial cinema. Early this year, the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival cancelled its annual film celebration, while some festivals like the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held in Goa and the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) pushed their editions to the early months of 2021 while allowing for a flexibility in their formats which could, depending on the intensity of restrictions at the time, include a combination of physical and online events. For others like the Dharamshala International Film Festival which chose to hold digital editions in their usual yearly slot, the online space and its freedom from daily schedules opened up new possibilities both in terms of a larger selection of films shown over a longer period – seven days, already longer than previous editions, with the films remaining available for an additional four, making it ultimately an 11-day festival – and a bigger and more diverse audience.

DIFF was started in 2012 by filmmakers and partners in life Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, their long-time involvement with the Tibet cause leading to their settling in 1996 in this beautiful Himalayan town which is also the exile home of the Dalai Lama and the capital of the Tibetan diaspora. In a place with no cinemas and limited projection facilities, DIFF began as a way of giving the local audience an opportunity to watch independent cinema, while also encouraging and supporting home-grown filmmaking talent. With its stunning location and keenly curated selections of films, all driven by a characteristic political and social awareness and a cinematically curious sensibility, along with the unhurried intimacy of its atmosphere and interactions and a program unburdened by the demands of competitive categories and high-profile events, DIFF has emerged in the years since its inception as one of the essential, not to mention unique, events in India’s annual film festival calendar.

76 Days

One of the first films I watched at the festival was the documentary 76 Days, a choice that immediately disrupted all apparent attempts made by such online events in 2020 to create a sense of the continuation of life and even of momentary escape from the rapidly escalating reality outside. In spite of the plethora of available information about the outbreak, the film still generated much interest among viewers because of the very real picture of the chaos, paranoia and immense strain on life at the frontlines that it managed to capture. With its title referring to the 76-day lockdown in Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, the documentary takes an observational approach with a strong human focus as it follows the stories of a few patients – sick, scared and lonely – in the medical facilities, even as it gives a sense of the larger situation through occasional outdoor shots of chillingly empty city streets, their unnatural calm pierced only by the blaring sirens of ambulances. These along with shots of people washing hands and communicating through barriers bear a sad familiarity as we recognise in them early sounds and sights that would soon become part of our “new normal”. But amidst all the bleakness, what the film shows repeatedly is the work of the medical care professionals. Anxious and overworked, they nonetheless provide tireless care and reassurance to patients, forging new bonds of comfort with them, standing in for their friends and family and even consoling relatives of the deceased. While indicating where our faith and gratitude should lie in this collective moment, through these depictions of human resilience and compassion the film also allows itself a glimmer of hope.

Hao Wu, one of the three directors of 76 Days, has spoken of how state control of the official narrative along with fears of reprisal were concerns during the process of putting together the film, issues brought into sharper focus by a documentary like David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, which, filmed in secrecy and with immense risk for everyone involved, also highlights the importance of exposing a truth that is rigorously denied by authorities and the astounding bravery of those who choose to do it. The film records the accounts and stories of gay men and women in the Chechen Republic who have undergone horrific persecution and torture in prisons and the work of a network of underground activists who attempt to help them escape to other countries. As part of its extremely elaborate and essential process of concealment, the film adopts a digital disguising technology to protect the identities of the survivors while retaining their voices and details of body language to establish a more intimate connection with them.

Deploying a method contrary to France’s, with its hectic chronicling of events and interactions between characters and footage shot with non-professional equipment to avoid discovery, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno presents its version of the Middle East conflict through stunning visuals, patient framing and very little dialogue. Its short vignettes – of ISIS-traumatised children speaking to a psychologist and drawing of the horrors they witnessed, of a mother listening to recorded messages of a kidnapped daughter now presumably dead, of inmates at a psych ward preparing to perform a play about war – point at the effects of the crisis on those left behind and are filmed with an observational distance, an idea intensified by the clash between the film’s look and subject.

Pearl of the Desert

A striking and deeply resonant film, Pushpendra Singh’s Pearl of the Desert examines the Manganiyar musical tradition of Rajasthan, a culture that is slowly dying out as new generations within the community no longer wish to learn it and larger commercial interests come into play. The film combines a documentary approach with a strong narrative element as it studies the practices of this oral folk culture, its rootedness in performance and its integral relationship with nature through a young boy, Moti, who learns this music and travels internationally to perform it. The film remarkably welds form and content through its visuals of a stark, beautiful landscape, infused with a sense of the spiritual and the performative interactions between characters.

In A Rifle and a Bag, filmmakers Cristina Haneș, Isabella Rinaldi and Arya Rothe look closely at the lives of an ex-Naxalite couple, relocated in a settlement in rural Maharashtra after their surrender to the Indian state and their attempts to raise children and reintegrate into society. With the couple struggling to adjust to a new life and facing consistent bureaucratic indifference, the film gently raises questions around issues like choice and the past, home and displacement. Belonging and exile are also ideas explored in Madhulika Jalali’s personal film Ghar Ka Pata where the filmmaker attempts to trace her roots/routes back to her family home in Srinagar in Kashmir. In the early 1990s, as communal tensions rose in the state following the Kashmir Insurgency, Kashmiri Hindu Pandit families like Jalali’s were forced to leave. In her present search, the filmmaker finds herself both behind and in front of the camera, poring over old pictures, making trips to Kashmir herself and piecing together an idea of home through conversations with older family members who wistfully recollect a time and place that was lost forever.

Rather than a longing for home, it is an exile’s struggles to adjust in his adopted country that is the subject of Visar Morina’s Kosovan drama Exile, playing in the festival’s narrative features section. A psychological slow-burn, the film charts Xhafer’s (Misel Maticevic) escalating paranoia as he senses hostility and discrimination at work in Germany where he has settled with his German wife and children, and resultantly grows more anxious and suspicious of everyone around him. A dim, green palette dominates the film giving it a cold, gloomy quality while Morina’s camera stays often right behind Xhafer, following him down corridors and streets, intensifying the sense of persecution he feels constantly.

Two films in this category, in spite of telling stories that emerged out of bleak contexts, added a degree of lightness to my viewing experience on account of their central romances and whimsicality. The first, Australian director Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, almost in defiance of the spectre of death that hangs above it as its protagonist undergoes cancer treatment, brings colour, warmth, humour and tenderness to a blossoming teen romance and a young girl’s journey of self-discovery. The second, Palestinian film Gaza Mon Amour by twins Tarzan and Arab Nasser, pivots on the gentle courtship of an ageing fisherman and a widowed seamstress in a land where bombings and blackouts are daily occurrences and the young are cynical, practical and desperate to escape.

Both Corpus Christi, Jan Komasa’s story about a young man released from a correctional centre who ends up impersonating the priest of a small parish, and Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel, are intense character studies, their narratives driven by the force of their central characters’ convictions. In the Polish film, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), with glassy eyes and a quiet forcefulness, attempts to help a small community deal with tragedy and the divisions and strife that arise from it as matters of faith, guidance, religion and morality are probed. In the second, Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli), a sailor, falls in love with a refined upper-class woman and becomes determined to change his situation and destiny through education and a career as a writer, but in the process also brings about an inevitable destruction fuelled by irascibility and resentment. Class aspirations and hypocrisy are also subjects at the centre of Massoud Bakhshi’s Iranian film Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness where the fate of a murderer must be decided on a reality television show, the premise lending additional drama to a situation already brimming with it, with all its chaotic backstage action and tense revelations, while also baring its deep voyeurism. What emerges in Yalda is a sense of the insidious nature of class awareness along with that of the vulnerability of women within Iranian societal structures.

Bittu

Several narrative and documentary short films screened at DIFF, many from first-time Indian filmmakers prompting the festival organisers to institute an audience award for best first film for this category this year. Among the most compelling in this group were Karishma Dev Dube’s Student Academy Award winner Bittu and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya and Kalp Sanghvi’s animated short Wade. In Bittu a day at a village school unfolds seemingly like any other with scenes of children in classrooms, at play and eating their midday meals, while the friendship between the eponymous Bittu (Rani Kumari), a wilful eight year-old girl, and her more studious best friend Chand (Renu Kumari) seems to go through its usual cycle of fun, disagreements, resentments and reconciliation. What make the film so moving and effective are the unexpected consequences of Bittu’s stubborn refusal to yield, the remarkable performances Dube draws out of the cast and the expectation of languor the film builds only to interrupt it suddenly and sharply by tragedy.

Wade offers a nightmarish vision in which rising sea levels have destroyed the Sundarbans, the mangrove forests to the south of the city of Kolkata, leading its inhabitants to migrate northwards while Kolkata finds itself in a probable dystopia of submerged streets, scavenging bands of environmental refugees and vicious fights with huge man-eating tigers who now populate its waters. The film’s astute artwork attests to the skill and imagination of its makers while its power stems both from the frightening sense of immediacy it creates and from the familiarity of its setting in Park Street, one of the city’s most popular locations studded with iconic restaurants and pubs, sapped here of all its charm and turned into a desolate, primal battleground. An equally urgent reminder and warning of the climate crisis was issued by artist/filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua’s An Invocation to the Earth, a 16-minute film made for TBA21’s online platform st_age. As two characters in animal masks dance in a tropical rainforest, the film incorporates the performative and spiritual elements of the Hungry Ghost festival – which celebrates the return of dead ancestors and is held in many East Asian countries – to invoke the spirits of murdered environmental defenders. Their names, dates of death and images constructed through facial recognition technology appear at the end while the sights and sounds of a burning tree powerfully evoke the devastation of the earth’s forests.

DIFF this year was also home to the first edition of “Monographs”, a set of video essays commissioned by the Asian Film Archive. With pieces like Maryam Tafakory’s Irani Bag on the handbag as a symbolic object in Iranian films enabling the expression of much that is repressed and Saodat Ismailova’s Her Five Lives on the transformations undergone by women in Uzbek society as seen through its cinema, this segment combined film history with the socio-political realities of various countries viewing them often through a personal lens.

The festival held a series of conversations with filmmakers and other industry professionals where topics such as international funding, the challenges of producing original work and establishing identities in a marketplace still dominated by the commercial Hindi film industry, the influence of female cinematographers on the film image and the advantages and pitfalls of the OTT boom were discussed. An idea came up in one such session that perhaps had something to say not just about this but ultimately all virtual festivals held in this most unusual year. Halfway through a discussion on his cinema, Chaitanya Tamhane, whose latest film The Disciple has garnered much acclaim following its premiere at Venice, spoke generously about his process and the deliberate pacing of his films, observing that they demanded time, attention and a degree of patience. “We are like the cursors on our screens,” Tamhane remarked, reflecting on how the informational excess of our age has created in us a perpetual state of distraction. In the year that we have had, this is perhaps truer than ever, the habitual overstimulation of our minds compounded by an anxiety- and uncertainty-induced seeking of online comfort. But like cinema, virtual festivals too in their own way have demanded a slowing down, a switching off of the outside to buy into the illusion, offering in return an opening up of new pockets of wonder and knowledge that at least for a while have kept reality at bay.

Dharamshala International Film Festival
29 October – 4 November 2020
Festival website: https://diff.co.in/