Exile, if it could be plotted and defined through cartography, never looked more picturesque. The Dhauladhar range is a meditative blue; a blanket of coniferous green hurts the eyes. The drive from The Buagsu Hotel to the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV), venue for the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) this year, is punctuated with ruddy-faced people-in-exile, smiling benignly at the pack of filmmakers and journalists inside the four-by-four vehicle making its way to the film screenings.
The quietude of the place and the obvious happiness of its chapped-lipped people are a far cry from the displaced subalterns one expects to be in exile. And yet, it is this state of fleeing, or being forced to flee, one’s own country, only to exist as an invisible outsider in a strange land, that consumes filmmakers like Sean McAllister. His documentary, A Syrian Love Story, is at once a cold political narrative and a fragile love story. Amidst the civil war in Syria, Amer Daoud and Raghda Hassan conduct a romance through a hole between their prison cells. They are released, they marry and when McAllister unearths their tale, Raghda is in prison for writing a novel that lashes out against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
McAllister’s auteurship is intensely personal; his lens, an unabashed voyeuristic eye that captures the tumult in Syria and the havoc it unleashes upon the lives of Amer and Raghda. The couple escapes from Syria to Lebanon and ultimately finds political asylum in France. Their marriage crumbles, unable to withstand the wear and tear wrought by what Raghda describes as: “I have a special stress.”
“I try to find stories and characters that let you get involved; sometimes the process of filming can benefit them,” says McAllister, who was also imprisoned in Syria while making the documentary over a period of five years. Standing against a backdrop of prayer flags stretched horizontally across the Kangra Valley, he mentions how screening the film in Dharamshala, a town peopled by Tibetan refugees, amplifies its underlying mood – an endless yearning for home. “For the Armenians, Turkey was home; the Palestinians think of Israel as home; I’m sure the Syrians too, long for home.” Deep nostalgia, in an otherwise unsentimental film, is captured in cryptic poignancy by the couple’s four-year-old son. When asked, “What do you remember about Syria?” he replies, “Our sweet days.”
A Syrian Love Story has appeared in several international film festivals, including BAFTA 2016 and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2015. And if McAllister’s camera is the intrusive ‘other’, witness to five years in the life of a couple torn asunder by the churn of political events, other stories too gush out with a complete disregard for objectivity. For instance, Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary Sonita is a fiercely passionate account of the life of Afghan rapper and activist Sonita Alizadeh. One sees her as a 14-year-old cleaner at a refugee centre in Iran, who escapes the drudgery of her life by churning out rhymes. She dreams of becoming a famous rapper; she tells the camera in Farsi: “I wrote mostly pop songs before. But I felt I couldn’t express myself with pop.” In school, she goes by the name Sonita Jackson. “It’s because of my dream parents,” she informs the class. “Michale Jackson and Rihanna!”
Sonita’s potent message lies in its young protagonist’s lyrics. “Don’t sell me hope, you’re hopeless too,” she raps at the refugee centre, “My future is bright, don’t worry about me!” Dreaming of being signed by a major record label and of moving to the US, she belts out: “Tonight I’ll break the spell of my hopelessness; I’m tired of going hungry, all the meals I’ve missed…”
The director appears in the film as Sonita’s saviour – she offers Sonita’s mother, who has come to Iran to take the girl back to Afghanistan, $2,000 as a fee to allow her to stay. “I’m for sale anyway,” says Sonita, who appears in a frame with a barcode painted on her forehead. Her inevitable fate – to be sold in marriage by her mother to an elderly Afghan – is averted by Maghami, who pays to prolong her stay in Iran and facilitates her migration to the US. “I spent a lot of time with her; we became close. That closeness is what you see in the film – I think it’s more important than objectivity,” says Maghami, whose film won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival 2016. Surrounded by the press as she steps out of the Hermann Gmeiner Auditorium at the TCV, where Sonita has received a standing ovation, Maghami smiles with a disarming humility and says, “I don’t make films because I want to change the world. I make films because there are voices like Sonita who need to be heard.”
The first world appears in both A Syrian Love Story and Sonita as a glimmering refuge, promising safety, employment and the validation of existing on official documents. But the West isn’t home and the privilege of being alive cannot take away an aching rootlessness, captured by Sonita, when she observes, “With a US passport you can go anywhere, but you cannot come to Iran.” One’s motherland, then, is the fount that nourishes the artistic soul. Maghami insists that while her protagonist has no choice but to move to the West, for her, Iran is, and will always remain, home: “As an artiste, if you immigrate, you lose access to the stories that inspire you.”
Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, directors of the DIFF, observe that sometimes, the process of curating films at a festival is a subliminal one. “When Ritu and I initiated this festival in 2012, the aim was to promote good independent cinema. We selected films that stood out. But, there’s no getting away from the fact that I’m Tibetan, and Ritu and I have been deeply involved with the Tibetan struggle for independence. So, inevitably, some of the films we end up picking are about conflict and displaced people,” says Sonam. The directors are also keen to encourage locals to watch a few films at the festival. “We want the local Tibetans and more Indians to visit the festival, but it’s a struggle, as there is no real cinema culture here in McLeodGanj and the films are subtitled and not easy to watch!” explains Sonam. Subconsciously, though, of the 43 or so films screened at this festival, it’s the ones preoccupied with an immigrant’s bid to live freely and to be heard, not as a feeble, dismembered voice but as an articulate clamour for social change, that draw the keenest throng of filmgoers here in Dharamshala.