The Dharamshala International Film Festival Goes Digital
Screen + Sound + Stage Text by Asad Ali India's first globally competitive film festival - the third edition of the Indian International Film Festival, New Delhi, 1965 - had all the attributes of bureaucratic significance. It was the first major institutional initiative to expand the cinema landscape in India. The President and Vice-President, Indira […]

Screen + Sound + Stage

Text by Asad Ali

India's first globally competitive film festival - the third edition of the Indian International Film Festival, New Delhi, 1965 - had all the attributes of bureaucratic significance. It was the first major institutional initiative to expand the cinema landscape in India. The President and Vice-President, Indira Gandhi (then Minister of Information and Broadcasting), the Mayor of Delhi and the Principal Ministers of Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra were all present. And, at the end of the festival, the critic Edith Laurie, in a 1965 edition of Movie Commentary, wrote that “… after a frantic month of sold-out houses… some people asked: Would there be another film festival? Others asked: should there be? India must decide. "

Fifty-five years later, moviegoers across the country are faced with a similar socio-cultural inquiry, born out of radically different circumstances. As lockdown measures in response to the coronavirus have erupted, theaters and, inevitably, film festivals has stopped. The restrictions may have eased, but the logistical nightmare of hosting a post-COVID film festival remains. Now, faced with a new “normal”, many are considering transposing the experience of a physical space to a digital space, even as they wonder if this change cannot simply be more permanent. The Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), held annually since 2012 in McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, was among the first leading Indian festivals to take the leap of faith.

Considering how the attractiveness of their destinations enhances the experience of attending events like DIFF or the Kerala International Documentary and Short Film Festival (IDSFFK) for example, these festivals are unique markers of the digital transformation underway.

Speaking of DIFF's origins, filmmakers and co-founders Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin recall how it all started as an attempt to reignite local conversations around cinema and culture: “We moved to Dharamshala in 1996 and slowly realized there was none. a lot is happening in the region in terms of contemporary cultural activities. Around 2010, we started to think actively about creating a small film festival, mainly to give our local audiences the chance to watch independent, non-commercial films, ”they say. “It seemed like moviegoers across the country were just waiting for a festival like DIFF, which combined good organization and a beautiful location.”

Sonam points out that "the attractiveness of Dharamshala, and more particularly of McLeod Ganj, as a destination has certainly been an important factor in the success of DIFF". Equally significant are the selection of films and the “personal interactions that took place”. However, he adds that for them, presenting cinema on the big screen as a collective experience has always been critical. “Ritu and I come from a time when watching movies in an auditorium was sacrosanct, and we really wanted to replicate that aspect in our festival… deciding to go online this year was difficult,” he says. While digital media offer viewing flexibility, their drawbacks quickly become apparent. Sonam says, “The closest personal interactions we were able to achieve in our digital edition of DIFF were in our Live Zoom conversations, where the audience could participate in real time. But even then, nothing can really replace the intimacy and immediacy of a physical film festival.

Actor Adil Hussain, who has participated in DIFF since its inception, says: “It's simple: people want to meet people. Calling my mom on video and visiting her are two very different experiences. Physical interactions involve not only seeing and hearing someone, but also experiencing the fullness of being of the other person ... there is no substitute for that. Another DIFF regular since 2015 (and curator of its children's film section), and founder and director of the Southasian Children's Cinema Forum, Monica Wahi says she was "struck by the atmosphere Ritu and Tenzing were able to create" . Speaking of the general landscape of film festivals, she said, "Logically, you might be able to find 'everything' online, but how will you even know what to look for if the festivals don't first get your attention to them? This is especially true for new artists. Physical festivals, she says, “enrich our experience of cinema as an art, as a practice, as a policy and as a way of life. Comparing and discussing the films you just watched, or the lectures and workshops you attended, all lead to a deeper understanding and attachment to this world.

Award-winning filmmaker, archivist and restorer, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur also echoes the feeling that the film festival is a crucial tangible cultural space. “Especially in a country like India where mainstream cinema has historically dominated cinemas, and even television, opportunities to watch independent films, documentaries, experimental and world cinema were scarce,” he says. Dungarpur remembers when he was a film student and Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was the main guest of the Kolkata International Film Festival in 1994. “I still remember the excitement of planning the trip to Kolkata just to be in the same town as him and in the hope of meeting him… the unforgettable moment he walked in and the whole auditorium was standing to give the master a standing ovation.

National award-winning film critic CS Venkiteswaran discusses the intensity of the whole exercise of attending a screening, which involves an investment of time and intellect. He explains that the advent of digital technology has resulted in a proliferation of films and better access. But, the "kind of poverty [cinema spaces] or [non]the availability of films, "which Venkiteswaran and his contemporaries had to navigate, meant that the" analog generation "was endowed with" a certain quality of attention. " He continues: “When we went to a film festival, we prepared for it and made every effort to watch the film at that time. In the digital age, you know you can always watch it later, so the intensity of viewing is diluted in the process. "

While Sonam believes the online iterations of film festivals are here to stay, he adds that the future may see “hybrid events where we have a physical component but also an online component”.

Prominent Malayalam filmmaker and Padma Shri laureate Shaji N Karun says film festivals serve a larger function than film screening. “They have social relevance; they are revealing of the fact that the medium of cinema is developing and the way in which this growth occurs. In this sense, putting festivals online is a disaster. Social scientist Dr Shiv Visvanathan is even less charitable. He believes that online versions of film festivals are mutants: “They are mutants of traditional forms of film consumption. A friend who teaches law told me that his online classes made no sense of the theater…. Likewise, online film festivals steal the sense of theater. And, in an oral-oriented country like India, he says, they don't offer the same spoonful of gossip and buzz as physical festivals. Karun provides a kind of middle ground. He compares COVID-19 to a world war and says, “A lot of the big film festivals shut down during the world wars - Cannes, Berlin, for example. In my opinion, refraining from attending festivals for a period like this is a much more honorable way to solve the problem than to compromise.

Umesh Kulkarni has participated in DIFF since its inception, and the nationally-awarded director says the festival has a unique texture - and not just because of its location. “For example, the fact that there was no competitive category to chase - it was an important decision that the organizers made that made it even better,” he says. Kulkarni was so won over by DIFF that he decided to organize the festival's shorts from the second year. And, according to him, two things fundamentally differentiate online viewing: location and people. There is a sense of engagement with both, whether it's DIFF, IFFI Goa, or IDSFFK. “If you are, say, in Kerala, you watch movies while being aware of the joy of others who are excited to watch the same movies. It is something irreplaceable. "

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