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Dharamsala: The new film festival in the Dalai Lama's backyard

A new film festival will showcase the best of recent Indian and world cinema in November.

“Film festivals bring filmmakers to a venue,” declared the veteran Indian actor Kabir Bedi. “They bring films that people do not usually see. Filmmakers and film-lovers get together, which creates an exchange of ideas. Collaborations occur.”

He added: “It’s all the more important that this happens in the smaller towns of India where our next great filmmaker may come from.”

Mr Bedi, whose film and television credits over a celebrated career include Knight Rider, Dynasty, portraying the Indian emperor Shah Jahan and playing the baddie, Gobindain in the James Bond film Octopussy, was speaking this week at the launch of the first Dharmsala film festival.

Over four days, lovers of film will be treated to 20 movies, short films and documentaries in the Indian hill town, best known as the home of the Tibetan exile community.

The film’s organisers – Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam and Victoria Conner – say Dharamsala is the perfect venue for such a festival, with its youthful population made up of Tibetans, Indians and foreigners. With no small irony, the town currently has no cinema.

Ms Sarin, whose Dharamsala-set film When Hari Got Married is among the movies being premiered, said they had received widespread support from local people, as well as filmmakers and producers. “We wanted to showcase the best of current independent cinema and create a fun and intimate event where filmmakers, film lovers and locals can get together,” she said.

Mr Sonam said they had lived in Dharamsala for 16 years and wanted to give something back to the community. They both loved films and film festivals and decided this was something they could offer. “We hope this will add yet another dimension to the town’s already considerable reputation as fun, interesting and different,” he added.

Best known as the home of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for all its charm there is an air of unshifting melancholy that hangs over Dharamsala. While a number of its residents are people who have escaped from Tibet in order to escape persecution by the Chinese authorities, an increasing number have been born in Dharamsala. The only experience they have of Tibet is through stories and testimonies told to them by their friends and family.

The situation is not helped by the inertia the ‘Free Tibet’ movement finds itself in. Despite efforts over decades by the Dalai Lama and his aides to try and secure “meaningful autonomy” for the people of Tibet, little if any progress has been made and the religious leader has been repeatedly branded by officials in China as someone trying to break up the country.

And as the ageing Dalai Lama’s moderate, “middle way” has continued to fail deliver results, there has been increasing frustration among the Tibetan youth. While they are permitted by the Indian government to live in Dharamsala, few have passports or the ability to travel abroad.

The past 12 months has seen an unprecedented series of self-immolations inside Tibet, where several dozen Tibetans have set themselves on fire out of desperation about the situation. This has only added to the sense of angst among the exile community.

While the organisers said the festival is not linked to the Tibetan freedom movement, a number of the movies being shown between November 1st – November 4th are those which focus on struggle and resistance.

The film Five Broken Cameras by Emat Burnat and Guy Davidi, for instance, is a documentary that examines a Palestinian farmer’s efforts to chronicle his non-violent opposition to the actions of the Israeli army.

Meanwhile, ½ Revolution, which won an award at this year’s East End Film Festival in London and is directed by Karim el-Hakim and Omar Shargawi, features a personal account from the frontlines of Egypt’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring.

Other films being shown include Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Miss Lovely by Ashim Ahluwalia.

As Mr Bedi said: “Films are such an important medium today and I am thrilled that Ritu and Tenzing are bringing quality, independent cinema to the mountains.”

For further details see: www.diff.co.in