We’ve never attempted anything like ‘The Sweet Requiem’ before
Renowned filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam are synonymous with making powerful documentaries around subjects close to their heart. The couple is also responsible for founding and successfully running the noted Dharamshala International film Festival since 2012. In an exclusive tete-a-tete with Pandolin, Ritu and Tenzing share their experience of being part of the Drishyam – Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab and talk about their second feature, The Sweet Requiem.
With a filmmaking background that spans over two decades, what was it that drew your interest towards the Drishyam – Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab?
Although we have been making films for more than 20 years, we have only made one dramatic feature, Dreaming Lhasa (2005). Most of our films are documentaries. When we made Dreaming Lhasa, it was the first script that Tenzing wrote and we realised that we could have done with a lot of solid feedback and guidance. The Sweet Requiem is our second feature and Tenzing has been working on the script for quite some time now. We were keen to get professional advice and so we applied to the Drishyam Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab.
Your films deal with Tibetan subjects, what is the core objective of the stories you’ll narrate? Would it be right to say that you’ll draw inspiration from real things that you’ll come across?
The majority of our films have dealt with subjects that we are very close to or intimately engaged with. When we started out making films, there were no films about the Tibet situation being made from within the Tibetan community, so this was a big challenge and responsibility for us. Our stories stem from our own experiences and our interactions with people and situations, and we remain involved with our subjects and characters long after we’ve made a film about them. So, definitely, drawing inspiration from real life situations and encounters is crucial to our approach to filmmaking.
Tell us about The Sweet Requiem and how did it come into being? Also, how would you say is The Sweet Requiem different from the other films you’ll have made till date?
The Sweet Requiem is the story of a young exiled Tibetan woman living in Delhi who, as an eight-year-old, fled Tibet with her father and made the dangerous trek across the high Himalayas to India. It is a project that has had a long gestation period, but the essential story has remained unchanged since we were first motivated to tackle the subject.
The initial inspiration for the film comes from an incident in September 2006 on the 5,800-metre Nangpala Pass on the Tibet-Nepal border. Chinese border guards opened fire on a group of Tibetans attempting to escape to India and shot dead a 17-year-old nun and injured several others. This brutal killing, which was captured on video by a Romanian mountain climber, raised many questions in our minds: Who were these escapees and what was their journey like? Why, after nearly 50 years of Chinese occupation, were Tibetans still risking their lives to escape to India? Why were so many of them children? And what happened to them after they made it to India? So our film is an attempt to explore these questions through an intimate and personal story. At the same time, it is an exploration of the themes of exile, memory and guilt, and the unexpected consequences of the choices we make in life. In this, the story transcends its specific context and touches upon universal concerns.
The Sweet Requiem is very different from our other films in terms of its style and its cross-genre approach. It is part psycho-political thriller and part escape drama with strong noir overtones. We’ve never attempted anything like it before and we are very excited to be throwing ourselves into this new journey!
In what way has the experience at the Lab given an impetus to your story? Were there any particularly interesting inputs from the mentors or other fellows that got you’ll thinking?
The Lab was fantastic for many reasons but chief among them was the fact that for a few days, we had a group of professionals, solely dedicated to discussing your script with you in a totally open, non-judgmental or prescriptive manner. That’s very rare to find and not the same as a friend or someone close to you giving feedback. All the discussions were geared solely towards improving what we, as filmmakers, were trying to do with the script. Of course, we had a range of opinions and feedback but as were constantly reminded, we were free to take what we found useful and ignore the rest. In our case, the feedback from our mentors ranged between two extremes – from suggestions to radically alter the script to only minimally revising it – with others in between! Since then, we’ve rewritten the script and definitely think it has improved as a result.
The other wonderful thing about the lab was meeting the other fellows and intimately interacting with them over meals and late night drinking sessions! Despite the fact that we come from a range of backgrounds and places, we all shared a common passion for cinema.
How did the interactions with the fellows help you’ll get new dimensions to your story?
We had great conversations and discussions but they were really on more general topics rather than on our scripts as such. Each one of us had enough on our hands with the intense meetings with our mentors but we did share notes on what we thought about our different mentors and their approaches.
How does the Lab experience add value to your personal filmmaking skills? Would you’ll recommend labs to other filmmakers as well?
There’s no question that an experience like the Drishyam Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab is a precious one, and hugely inspirational in our efforts to hone our skills as screenwriters and filmmakers. Definitely recommend it to other filmmakers, and it doesn’t matter if you are a new filmmaker or a more experienced one.
Currently at what stage is your script? Does the lab oversee your script till the very final draft?
We’ve rewritten a new draft after the Lab and had a long Skype session with Paul Federbush, who is in charge of the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab. We’ll go in for one more rewrite based on this conversation, but we feel we are quite close to finalizing a version that we are happy with. Of course, there’s no end to the amount one can tinker with a script, so at some point, we have to stop and move on to the next phase. The great thing about being part of a Sundance Lab is that you become a part of the Sundance family and they take a close interest in the development of your project and help in every way they can.
With Drishyam Films planning to produce one or two stories from the Lab, are you’ll open to a co-production or do you’ll wish to produce the film under your own banner?
We are always open to co-productions! We’ve raised some money and are currently looking for the remainder. If Drishyam were interested in supporting our film, we would be very happy, indeed. We have great respect for Manish Mundra and his support of indie films and it would be wonderful to work with Drishyam.
Lastly, the Dharamshala International Film Festival is your baby and has grown by leaps over the years. With indie cinema on a growth spree, what changes has DIFF seen and what does DIFF 2015 hold in store?
Right from the first edition of DIFF in 2012, we have had a special interest in the Indian independent film scene, and over the past three editions, we’ve showcased several wonderful films and hosted their filmmakers. At the moment, the Indian independent film scene continues to grow and it’s really exciting for us to have so many interesting films to choose from. We are really looking forward to introducing some of them along with their filmmakers at DIFF 2015. And, of course, as always, we’ll have a great selection of indie films and documentaries from around the world as well. The festival dates this year are from 5th to 8th November.