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Exile, through the lens

By Kavita

Most of the films screened at the Tibetan Film Festival and the Dharamsala International Film Festival had a strong political theme, reflecting the trauma of a people fenced in and outnumbered at ‘home’, silenced in exile

Dharamsala International Film Festival

It’s the last week of October, a busy week for Dharamsala, a small town unlike any other in the Himalayan foothills. There’s going to be a teaching by its most famous resident, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, but that’s just business as usual. What’s unusual is the sudden mushrooming of film festivals in a town that boasts of many bars, bookshops, massage parlours and cafes, but not a single proper theatre.

Just outside Dharamsala bus station, loudspeakers drone mournfully atop a van, reminding people of the impeding four-day ‘dry’ period on account of the elections.

Ten kilometres up and away, in the rarefied atmosphere of the erstwhile colonial, now ‘spiritual’ haven of McLeodganj, the cacophony multiplies tenfold. Vying for attention are cooking classes, reiki, handicrafts, retreat, self-immolations, tai chi, organic, reincarnation, tattoos, bhangra, HIV, thanka art… and dozens of posters everywhere announcing DIFF -- the Dharamsala International Film Festival.

Already, numbers and visibility seem to have accomplished what good intentions alone cannot -- the festival has become a talking point even before the first film is screened. A passing acquaintance hints at miracles -- the TIPA road has been newly tarred in anticipation of high-profile international visitors, she says.

But what of the crowds of celebrities who have continued to routinely pour into Dharamsala ever since the Dalai Lama took up residence here 50-odd years ago, I ask. No roads were ever repaired on their account, so why should there be a change now?

“Oh, but they were, they all contributed their bit,” I’m told. “Richard Gere gave money for the toilet block; then Mr So and So to build the temple road. And now it’s Ritu and Tenzin’s turn -- this road would never have got repaired otherwise; who knows what else is in store.”

The message is clear -- this is not just any festival. And this is certainly not just a film festival either.

I have my doubts though. Would DIFF prove to be as worthwhile as, if not better, than the Tibetan Film Festival?


The recently concluded Tibetan Film Festival is the older of the two -- this year being its fourth edition in Zurich, and the second in Dharamsala. This year too it was dedicated to Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen who was detained in 2009, just before the Beijing Olympics, and sentenced to six years in a Chinese prison for the crime of interviewing Tibetans in Tibet about their views on China’s policies.

Given its genesis, most though not all of the films screened had a strong political theme reflecting the trauma of a people fenced in and outnumbered at ‘home’, silenced in exile.

The festival opened with Tiger’s Nose, an unhurried exposition of the relationship that develops between two Tibetans in faraway Switzerland -- one, the young second-generation Swiss-Tibetan filmmaker Lobsang Sotrug and the other, an 80-year-old political prisoner who has spent 32 years in a Chinese prison.

The old man is prickly at first but slowly warms up to Sotrug who starts calling him ‘grandfather’. Through grandfather’s story of his capture during the 1959 uprising, his recreation on paper of the cell where he was imprisoned for the better part of his life and his wistful dwelling over what might have been had he married the girl he liked back then, Tibet, his lost homeland -- the homeland he’s never been to -- is returned to Sotrug, if only as memory.

Unlike Sotrug, Ngawang Choephel was not born in exile. He escaped to India with his mother as a two-year-old baby and grew up in the exile camp of Mundgod in Karnataka. With a natural talent for music, he ended up studying at TIPA -- the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts and also, coincidentally, the venue for the Tibetan Film Festival that is screening his award-winning documentary Tibet in Song.

The film is about Choephel’s journey to Tibet to document its rich but fast-dying folk music tradition. As he travels, musicians and teachers, farmers and milkmaids sing their songs of work and leisure, celebration and mourning; Ngawang records it all whilst also bearing silent witness to the destruction that is being wrought in the name of culture. On a trip to visit his father whom he has not met since leaving Tibet, he is detained on charges of spying and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The distance between film and filmmaker collapses -- Ngawang cannot extricate himself from the story he’s telling; in his own words, he has now joined the struggle. At this point the film noticeably brings in other stories of torture and resistance in monasteries and prisons -- local resistance and the protests worldwide that finally succeed in bringing about his release.

In a departure from familiar ways of looking at Tibet, the fiction film Girl from China tries to shift the framework of discourse from that of oppressor and victim to possibilities of understanding, if not reconciliation.

However, this story of a brief encounter between a Tibetan man and a Chinese woman in New Delhi and their journey together to Dharamsala seemed too much to digest for some in the audience. As one well-heeled European woman put it while sipping coffee on a sunny morning outside the Dalai Lama’s temple: “It was horrible; so kitschy.”

“Not all Chinese are bad,” I say. “It’s like India and Pakistan… how can you hate all Pakistanis? Even if some people support their government, you cannot hold every Indian and Pakistani accountable.”

“But that’s like saying you cannot hold the Germans accountable for the holocaust. They gassed the Jews and everyone later said, ‘I did not know’. Just like the girl in the film. But how can you say you did not know? Of course you know… just like they knew. They all knew of the Jews and still kept quiet.”

Not every film evoked the same heated debate. The most eagerly awaited film Old Dog, also the concluding film of the festival, was an elegy to a way of life that perhaps doesn’t exist any more, with nomads across Tibet being forced off their lands and into reservations, under the guise of development. Despite a packed hall, the film with little dialogue and fewer concessions to standard storytelling norms, left many, animal-lovers and Dharma-lovers in particular, scratching their heads in bewilderment. “But why did he have to do that at the end? It wasn’t a very Buddhist thing to do.”

Such conversations did not portend well for the festival to come -- DIFF. With films on Marina Abramovich, Jose Saramago and Pina Bausch, along with the ‘straightforward’ political stories in terms of form and content both, it promised to be even more challenging for the audience.


The Dharamsala International Film Festival opened with Shahid, a film by Hansal Mehta about the lawyer Shahid Azmi who was shot dead in Mumbai in 2010. Himself a former political prisoner who, in the ’90s, had briefly allied with Kashmiri militants, Shahid, after being arrested in another case, served six years in prison before being honourably acquitted. Upon his release, he studied law and soon had a successful and highly specialised practice defending those detained under repressive laws such as TADA and POTA, including 26/11-accused Faheem Ansari whose case he was fighting at the time of his murder.

Shahid’s story is definitely a brave choice of subject for anyone working in mainstream Bollywood, and Mehta mostly does justice to this story of a Muslim boy who with his intelligence and eloquence could easily have taken a destructive path but instead chose to fight in court, mostly on behalf of poor Muslims like himself from the ghettoes of Mumbai, with no education, no prospects, no hope.

This inspiring bio-pic (though Mehta doesn’t like to call it one) on the human rights lawyer set the tone for the rest of the festival.

The second day’s highlight for most was the Palestinian-Israeli film 5 Broken Cameras, the story of a Palestinian farmer’s documentation of the slow occupation of his land by the Israeli army and settlers, and the brave resistance that builds up among the ordinary villagers of Bi’lin.

The third day began with Patricio Guzman’s exquisite Nostalgia for the Light, at once a prayer and a dirge; a reflection on seemingly insignificant individual lives and eternal cosmic laws; a warning about the perils of forgetting, and an exhortation to remember. The Atacama desert, the driest place in the world, becomes the setting for three unlikely groups of people who all have one thing in common -- they excavate the past. Astronomers gaze at the sky through the translucent air, searching for the beginnings of the universe; archaeologists dig the well-preserved earth to look for ancestors who have left behind petroglyphs on the rock. Mothers, sisters and daughters scan the sands for signs of disturbance, their keen eyes picking out shards of bone that could be from a finger or rib. However, while the first two, the astronomers and archaeologists, are understood and their work celebrated in Chile, for the last -- the mothers who comb the sands for the remains of their loved ones ‘disappeared’ during Pinochet’s regime -- society has no understanding. Is it possible to turn the telescopes around, from sky to earth, asks one of the mothers -- perhaps they can see, perhaps they can find.

The final day saw a packed house for 1/2 Revolution by Omar Sharghawi and Karim el Hakim, a tightly edited intense account of the experiences of a group of friends in Cairo who find themselves in the thick of events during the Arab Spring. The centre of the revolution is Tahrir Square, but the film mostly chooses to stay at Home, where an odd assortment of people with no fixed address, no clear sense of belonging, film each other as they watch events unfold, over television and on the streets. Within these four walls that they call Home, solidity and safety is an illusion -- will the nation, will the region ever recover and realise the promise of the Arab Spring? That’s the question the filmmakers deliberately choose not to answer.

While the ‘political’ films drew a full house, the films on art screening at a smaller venue near the main temple did not have many takers. Jose and Pilar, about the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago and his collaborator/translator, also wife, Pilar del Rio, is a moving account of the artistic life -- lived to the full and yet never exhausted, generous and greedy, equally tender and passionate in matters personal and political.

Marina Abramovic -- the Artist is Present is a portrait of the artist as she prepares for her first retrospective at MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. Acclaimed as one of the most significant artists of this century, the film was a rare treat not just for art aficionados but also for those who have wondered about performance art -- what’s so political or artistic about carving a design on your stomach with a razor, or sitting on a chair playing ‘let’s see who blinks first’ with total strangers in an art gallery? At least a couple of viewers came away from that particular screening saying that though the film hadn’t provided them with answers to these questions, it had taken them closer to experiencing art.

After Jose and Pilar and Marina Abramovic, acclaimed German director Wim Wender’s Pina was disappointing. Designed as a tribute to one of the greatest contemporary dancers ever, the film neither gave a glimpse of the artist, her motivations, her concerns, nor provided a context to her work. Most disappointing of all, except for some striking forays into the city, most notably the subway, it failed to capture the energy of the stage.

Finally, there were the fiction films that, in a festival dominated by documentaries, stood out for their cinematic excellence. Bunohan -- Return to Murder by Dain Said is at once the story of three brothers fighting each other for their father’s land as it is about the displacement of old ways of living. On this borderland, everyone leads a liminal existence -- the kickboxers hang to their lives by delicate threads, the shadow puppets are mute witnesses to a rapacious new order, the healing spirits are driven out of their resting places by property developers; even the attempt to leave a testimony in a dying tongue -- which is what the film seems to be -- is a vain tilting at windmills, for the land is long gone.

The Korean Hahaha about two friends exchanging reminiscences about a recent holiday in a seaside town was a comedy narrated with wit and compassion. Unfortunately, given the number of extraordinary films, acclaimed and otherwise, on offer at the festival films such as this had few viewers. There being no repeat screenings, many promising films like Miss Lovely, Yangtsi and Summer Pasture could not be viewed.

Missing Miss Lovely on the concluding day was especially disappointing but then it was important to attend the vigil for the young man who had set himself on fire in distant Amdo province of Tibet. This one, taking place on November 4, was, by one reckoning, the 63rd in the chain that was set off in 2009.


So, what are the criteria for a successful festival anyway? An intelligent selection of films is probably the most essential requirement. And then there is public participation, staying power and the creation of a sustained dialogue about and through cinema, in that order.

Despite not having a wide pool of films to choose from, or perhaps because of it being restricted to films by people of Tibetan origin, the Tibetan Film Festival was a resounding success on all counts. Local Tibetans outnumbered the expat and tourist crowd, partly because of the short film competition on the theme ‘Courage’ that drew entries from filmmakers not just from Dharamsala but from across the Tibetan diaspora. That cinema can be the most potent changemaker was proved by the fact that the audience appreciated not just films that focused on self-immolations and the travails of exile, but also those that focused on overcoming barriers within -- whether social or psychological.

As for the Dharamsala International Film Festival, the outstanding selection of films, the packed halls for some films, especially at TIPA, the involved question-and-answer sessions at the end of every film, the well-attended master classes and the engaging though poorly-attended panel discussions all indicate that India has got another film festival of calibre showcasing the best of independent cinema.

However, certain promises have not been fulfilled; whoever spread the rumour about the TIPA road only needs to walk 50 feet up to know that!

On a more serious note, the organisers perhaps need to address the issue of public participation. One of the main funding supports for DIFF was from the Prince Klaus Fund that awarded it a fellowship for the stated objective of serving as a platform to foster interaction between the Tibetan exile community and the Indian ‘host’ community. While DIFF’s art residency/workshop that brought together Tibetan, Indian and international artists served to facilitate one kind of interaction, as far as the film festival goes, there doesn’t seem to have been much participation from locals -- Tibetan or Indian.

In the final analysis, while all of us who’re here for short and long periods have much to be grateful for to both festivals, it would help if the next time they are spaced further apart in the calendar. Let’s not forget that this is a town with no cinema halls and no cinema-going culture. Yet.

(Kavita is a filmmaker. She is currently a student of Tibetan in Dharamsala)

Infochange News & Features, November 2012