Bringing Film to the Himalayas

By Theadora Walsh  /  October 20, 2016;

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam

Though neither Ritu Sarin nor Tenzing Sonam was born in Himachal Pradesh, the filmmaking couple were drawn to Dharamshala. Ritu’s family is from the area and Tenzing saw many Tibetans, including his parents, take refuge in the former hill station when the Indian government chose it as the exile capital. Their most recent documentary, When Hari Got Married, displays the extent to which the two have become a part of the community. Following their local taxi driver through the excitement and trepidations of an arranged marriage, the camera becomes a sort of confidant.

I met Ritu and Tenzing through their son. Living in their beautiful home, I have been privy to their creative process. Their devotion to great cinema comes from collaboration and a mutual respect and admiration for each other. I think this partnership shows in their films. Their documentaries, which mostly focus on Tibetan themes, are both personal and in constant dialogue with their subjects. Without cynicism or indifference, the filmmaking couple are totally dedicated to their craft and to the ever changing situation of Tibet.

How did you start making films? What are your backgrounds?

Ritu Sarin: My family was from Dharamshala but I never really lived here even when I was growing up. My father had a job which caused us to move around. I saw my first alternate film when I was quite young and even though I didn’t understand what I was seeing, I found it so intriguing. When we were growing up, our lives were predetermined. You didn’t have many options –you were probably going to do your BA and get married, etc. So watching these alternate films sort of opened up a whole new world for me. I thought of studying film and went to art school in California to do a Masters in Fine Arts, specialising in film and video.

Tenzing Sonam: I was born and brought up in Darjeeling. My parents were Tibetan refugees who moved from Tibet after the Chinese occupation. After school, I came to Delhi and studied Economics at St. Stephen’s and like Ritu I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. After my BA, I came to Dharamshala and worked for the Tibetan Government-in-exile for over a year. Then I moved to America and lived in many different places before finally ending up in Berkeley where I did a Masters in Journalism.

RS: Tenzing and I re-met there and we started working on our first documentary together. That was a long time ago in the 80’s and the documentary was about the Sikh communities in northern California. It was called The New Puritans – The Sikhs of Yuba City, and was one of the earliest films about the Indian immigrant community and their experiences, generational conflicts and what it all meant.

Tell me about your first feature film, Dreaming Lhasa. What inspired you to write a fictional script?

TS: We made a Tibetan feature film called Dreaming Lhasa. It was set in Dharamshala and was about the Tibetan exile experience. It was about a Tibetan-origin filmmaker from the United States who comes here to shoot a film. She meets a guy who comes from Tibet, learns about his story and helps him in his search for a missing person. It showed at the Toronto International Film Festival, San Sebastian Film Festival and had a theatrical release in the US as well.
Most of your films cast light on Tibet’s occupation. How did you decide to focus on this issue?

RS+TS: Tibet is always on our minds. It’s something we kind of live with. We constantly engage in the subject and there are so many films we want to make about it. When we started out making films we realised that most films about Tibet were being made by non-Tibetans and although well-meaning for the most part, lacked an insight that could only come from within the community. We made a decision to fill this gap by focusing on Tibet-themed subjects as we were both closely connected to the exile Tibetan community and passionately engaged in its struggle. Our films always come from a more personal perspective and the issues they address are issues that concern us personally.

Many of the people you’ve made films about live in or pass through Dharamshala. What is it like to see them grow older and change?

It’s very important for us to try and stay in touch with the people we have made films about. These relationships transcend the filmmaking process and are meaningful to us on a personal level. It’s been fascinating to see some of our characters –especially the younger ones –change over time, grow up, become adults, and in some cases, assume very heavy responsibilities. Our films are small snapshots of particular moments in the lives of these people –important moments, certainly –but life moves on and we are happy to be a part of their journey.

Where did the idea to organise the Dharamshala International Film Festival come from?

RS+TS: DIFF grew out of long conversations around our kitchen table in Dharamshala. Initially, our idea was to introduce the local community to good, alternative cinema. Starting a film festival seemed like the most natural thing for us to do. The second thing was that we thought Dharamshala was such an amazing place with such an unusual mix of people but it was lacking some kind of an event –an international event that could capitalise on its assets. So a film festival seemed like a good choice for us.

As filmmakers yourselves, how do you approach curating a film festival?

RS+TS: The fact that we are filmmakers is crucial to DIFF’s particular character. We bring to the festival our own experience of attending film festivals around the world, both large and small. We can call on a wide network of filmmakers, producers, sales agents, distributors, and festival programmers to advise us, recommend films, and often to help us get in touch with filmmakers. And most importantly, as filmmakers, we understand the importance of creating a platform to showcase independent films. DIFF neither has corporate sponsorships nor big celebrities taking over. It is a platform where audiences and filmmakers interact and intermingle quite informally. The philosophy of DIFF is purely to celebrate good cinema.

What are your plans for the future?

RS+TS: We are embarking on our second feature film, The Sweet Requiem, a suspense drama about an exile Tibetan woman living in Delhi. Unexpectedly, she sees a man she holds responsible for her father’s murder on a Himalayan pass which reawakens long-suppressed memories of her traumatic escape from Tibet. We are hoping to start shooting sometime between this year and next.

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