What started as an ‘unknown entity’ has come a long way in the past five years. As Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) enters its fifth year, its founder and director Ritu Sarin, who started the festival in 2012 with her filmmaker husband Tenzing Sonam, opens up about the festival that has played a key role in bringing independent cinema to a small town, which didn’t even have cinema halls. Here are excerpts from our interesting conversation.

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam

Dharamshala International Film Festival has grown slowly, passionately and steadily. How would you sum up this five-year long journey?

It’s hard to imagine that this will be our fifth edition. The festival has consumed a lot of our time and energy in these past five years. We have not been able to make a single film since we started, and we are primarily filmmakers, not festival directors! Still it is rewarding to see that something that started out as a local, community-based event has grown into a national one with film lovers coming to DIFF from every corner of the country.

Today, DIFF fills a niche in the Indian festival landscape as a place where filmmakers and film lovers can come and interact with each other in an intimate and informal setting while enjoying the beauty of its unique location. We’re also proud of the fact that DIFF has the reputation of being a festival that is warm and friendly but efficient at the same time.


How has your background as a filmmaker as well as your wide network of filmmaker friends and festival programmers helped the festival in reaching where it is today? 

The fact that we are filmmakers ourselves has played a crucial role in the success of the festival. In the beginning, DIFF was an unknown entity. Why would anyone send their films and bother to come to a festival with no history and no credentials? But we reached out to our filmmaker friends, festival programmers that we knew, sales agents and distributors that we had worked with, and they all rallied to help us, which made it possible for us to become ambitious in our programming.

In our very first year, we managed to bring filmmakers like Asif Kapadia, Guy Davidi, Hansal Mehta, Umesh Kulkarni and others to the festival. As filmmakers, we are part of a family and there is an element of trust and camaraderie that has been really helpful for the festival. At the same time, the fact that we have been to many film festivals around the world really helps make it a filmmaker-friendly festival. To date we have invited over 40 filmmakers, producers and actors and everyone has loved the experience, so we believe that we provide something that is special, and that comes down to the fact that we are filmmakers ourselves.

We want DIFF to be a venue where film lovers and filmmakers can come together in intimate and friendly surroundings simply for the love of cinema

Even after five years, what are the challenges and hindrances that you’ll face?

Our main challenges are financial and keeping a core team going from year to year. Since most of our team members are young people, they want to move on to bigger things and so each year, we have to start from scratch. Also, Dharamshala being a small town, there are a lot of logistical and infrastructural issues like having to set our screening theatres from scratch.

What are your learnings from the past four years, that have helped enhance the festival this time round?

At the moment, we are building on our experience and streamlining our operations, making sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible. We are also stepping up our outreach programmes so that we can get even more local involvement in the festival.

DIFF team

DIFF team

That sounds great. Tell us more about these community outreach projects.

This year, we have focused a lot on increasing our community outreach. Our Outreach Facilitator, Matthew Singh-Toor, has been very active in reaching out to local schools and colleges, organizing DIFF special screenings in some of the villages around Dharamshala as well as at the District Jail. This year, we are also organizing a film appreciation workshop and competition for 20 children from four local schools, including a school for the children of migrant workers.

The good thing about being a non-profit is that we have the freedom to organize the festival in the way we want

You also seem to have some new members in your core team.  Tell us about the main team at DIFF and their respective roles.

Yes, this year, we pretty much have a brand new team. Raman Chawla is our Associate Director and given his long experience in the film festival world, he has been helping us liaise with filmmakers, sales agents and distributors. Along with our Hospitality Coordinator, Phurbu Bhuti, he has also been overseeing travel and hospitality for our guests. Natasha Patel is our Festival Coordinator and is taking care of many of the practical aspects of running the festival. Prateek Rawat, Festival Assistant, is taking care of content and also dealing with social media. Matthew Singh-Toor is our Editor for all the written material as well as the Outreach Facilitator. Eline Groeneweg-Bhatt, Communications Liaison, is dealing with the design elements and liaising with Wieden+Kennedy, our Creative Partners. Jyotsna Sarah George, Venue Manager, is in charge of all logistics at the venue. Dennis Harrap takes care of the operational aspects of the festival. And Tenzin Chokey Ginguld is in charge of organizing DIFF’s special events. And we have many other people helping us and making this possible. We will also have about 80 volunteers from all over the country join us and make DIFF come to life.


What about the selection criteria of the films – what is the process like and on what basis are the films selected?

Right from the beginning, our selection criteria was simple: to pick films that exemplified the best of independent cinema. We gave ourselves no brief other than that. But we do look for films that demonstrate cinematic excellence, that push the boundaries of filmmaking and tackle unusual and important subject matter.

How many people help you scout for these films?

Since we don’t have a submission process, the films that we review are mostly through word of mouth. We hear of films through filmmaker friends and by getting recommendations from film festival programmers and sales agents. And we do keep abreast of the programmes of other film festivals, which give us an idea of what’s new and trending in the indie film world.

Which movie do you anticipate to be the talk of DIFF this year?

That’s a tough one to call! We’re proud of all the films that we are showing. Each one has something special about it. Hopefully, the audiences will enjoy all the films!

Hansal Mehta with Tenzing Sonam at DIFF 2014

Hansal Mehta with Tenzing Sonam at DIFF 2014

Being a not-for-profit initiative, what factors have helped DIFF not just survive but also excel each year?

The good thing about being a non-profit is that we don’t face any commercial pressures, so we have the freedom to organize the festival in the way we want. The downside, of course, is that we are totally dependent on grants and donations, and this means that every year, we have to struggle to find the funding.

Our selection criteria was simple: to pick films that exemplified the best of independent cinema

There has always been a paucity of venues to screen Indie films in India. And in a place like Dharamshala, it must have been a huge task. What kind of challenges did you face in bridging that gap?

When we started out in 2012, there were no cinema halls in the whole area. Since earlier this year, a multiplex with two small cinemas has opened in Lower Dharamshala. Next year, we will try and figure out a way to incorporate these cinemas into the DIFF programme. Meanwhile, our main venues in McLeod Ganj have been the auditorium of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and the conference hall of HP Tourism’s Club House. We have had to turn these spaces into viable screening theatres by hiring projection equipment from Delhi. This year, DIFF moves to a new location, the Tibetan Children’s Village, which has two fair-sized auditoriums but again, we will have to bring the projection equipment from Delhi.

The Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) is a thriving, integrated educational community for Tibetan children in exile. How do you see this new venue giving an impetus to the festival?

The great thing about TCV is that it will allow all the activities of DIFF – screenings, panels, food and craft fair – to happen in one location. So audiences can happily spend the whole day in one area. In the past, both our venues were spread apart so audiences had to go from one to the other. Also, the location of TCV, next to Dal Lake and surrounded by Deodar forests, is exceptionally pretty, and the school itself is spread over a large area and will be of great interest to visitors.

What role has the DIFF Film Fellows initiative played in encouraging talent from the hills? After DIFF, what is the next step for them?

The DIFF Film Fellows programme is a small initiative to encourage budding filmmakers from the Indian Himalayan regions. We have a selection process where a jury of three film professionals select five candidates based on their work and statement. DIFF brings these five filmmakers to the festival where they are mentored by established filmmakers. They also have the opportunity to watch movies and interact with filmmakers. Our hope is that this will focus their interest and inspire them on their path as filmmakers. At the moment, it is too early for these young filmmakers to have made their mark on the larger stage but we are confident that in a few years time, we will be hearing more about their achievements.


Asif Kapadia at Master Class DIFF 2012

Asif Kapadia at Master Class DIFF 2012

After a journey of five years, today when you introspect, what is DIFF’s contribution – to the  natives of Dharamshala, from a tourism perspective and creating an environment for films – that makes you really proud?

DIFF’s tagline is “Bringing Independent Cinema to the Mountains”, and we feel that we have gone some way in achieving this goal. DIFF has now become known all over India as a place for independent cinema and attracts film lovers from across the country. Of course, this is helpful to the local economy and is helping to put Dharamshala on the map of international cultural events.

The DIFF Film Fellows programme is a small initiative to encourage budding filmmakers from the Indian Himalayan regions

Unlike other film festivals, DIFF is more of a platform that screens films. Do we also see it coming up with various awards that a lot of other festivals are known for?

One of the things that we were very sure about when we started DIFF was that we would not have any competition sections. We want DIFF to be a place free of competition and rivalry, a venue where film lovers and filmmakers can come together in intimate and friendly surroundings simply for the love of cinema. So no, we have no plans to include awards.

Also, what have been DIFF’s reference points or influences in all these years? Is there any particular festival that you look up to?

We have been to many film festivals over the years. The ones that we have enjoyed most are the smaller festivals where we have a chance to meet other filmmakers and really participate in the various programmes. Some memorable festivals for us are Tromso International Film Festival in Norway, DMZ Docs in South Korea, Amazonas Film Festival in Brazil, CAAMFest in San Francisco, and the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain. A festival we look up to, although we have never been there, is Telluride, which is a small festival in the Rocky Mountains of the US, and has a reputation for excellent programming in intimate surroundings.


Where do you see DIFF in the next five years?

Hopefully, the infrastructure will have improved enough to allow us to add a few more days, invite more filmmakers, and welcome more people to attend the festival from all over the country.

Photo ofRitu Sarin
Ritu Sarin
Job Title
Filmmaker and Festival director