The Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) is unique as much for its eclectic programming as for the beauty of its scenic setting. The quality of the selection, going by the initial slate of films that DIFF unveiled recently, is intact. The location has, however, been rendered out of bounds by the pandemic. DIFF’s ninth edition (October 29 to November 4) will be entirely online. The ineffable joy of dissecting cinema under the mellow sun over piping hot coffee, walnut cakes and chicken dumplings will have to wait until next year. But the festival’s 2020 line-up will be accessible across South Asia via the online delivery platform Shift72.
Going online has allowed DIFF to add three days. This year, it will run for a full week. “We used to show around 26 features, narratives and documentaries,” says Ritu Sarin, who helms the festival with life partner fillmmaker Tenzing Sonam. “This year we will be showing more than 40. This has been made possible because the digital format is more flexible.” The decision to go online wasn’t easy. Says Sarin: “We’re from a generation that grew up watching films in cinemas. … Also, DIFF is so much about the place and its intimate ambience. It took us a while to get our heads around the idea.”
“There are definitely a few advantages,” she admits. “The main one is that an online festival allows DIFF access to a much wider audience. With the exception of a few that have to be geo-blocked to India, all our films will be available to viewers in South Asia. And a large part of our shorts programme will also be available to international audiences. The other advantage is that audiences can technically watch more films during the weeklong window.”
“It’s a completely new medium, and everyone involved is still learning and innovating.… We had to understand the technicalities of organising a digital film festival,” says Sarin. “But yes, we are working with the foremost online delivery platform in the world, Shift72, so that has made the transition a lot easier.”
One aspect of DIFF that we can blindly bank upon is the quality of the curation. A foretaste has already been provided by the festival’s first bunch of films — six acclaimed documentaries and four narrative features. Watch out especially for the Chinese documentary 76 Days, about frontline hospital workers in Wuhan, a city of 11 million where Covid-19 first struck, who staked their all to treat patients dangling between life and death. The film — the title refers to the number of days Wuhan was under lockdown — goes beyond pandemic statistics to capture the human dimension of the terrifying health crisis.
Two documentaries travel to the heart of India and tell incredible stories of adversity and resilience. Pushpendra Singh’s Pearl of the Desert follows a 12-year-old Manganiyar boy from a remote Rajasthan village, who must balance his musical tradition with the demands of a changing world. The other Indian documentary in the DIFF 2020’s initial selection, A Rifle and a Bag, is the first feature-length film from the No Cut Film Collective launched by Arya Rother, Cristina Hanes and Isabella Rinaldi, three graduates of DocNomads, the European Union’s documentary direction programme.
A Rifle and a Bag transports the audience into the world of an ex-Naxalite couple preparing for the birth of their second child even as they have to find a school for their son. But as former Communist rebels who fought for the rights of tribals, they are up against an unsympathetic, even openly hostile, bureaucracy. They surrendered to ensure for themselves a workable future. But is there one for their ilk in contemporary India? Also in the documentary selection are Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker, which documents Imelda Marcos’ push to win her son Bongbong the Filipino vice-presidency; David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, about the homophobic regime of Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov; and Sam Soko’s Softie, a portrait of Kenyan political activist Boniface Mwangi.
The four narrative features in DIFF’s initial selection include Polish director Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi, the story of a young man who leaves a correctional centre after serving time for unspecified crimes and fakes the persona of a priest, and Fernanda Valadez’s Mexican film Identifying Features, in which a desperate mother travels across the country in search of a missing son, who left his central Mexican home to look for work in the US.