Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam – Change in Small Increments

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam are filmmakers settled in Dharamsala, India and focused on making films on Tibetan themes. They work through their independent company White Crane Films. Dreaming Lhasa was their debut feature length film on Tibetan themes and they have not looked back. This interview was conducted by Jayesh Ganesh.

MfC: How and where did you meet? Tell us about the early influences that shaped who you are today.

Ritu/Tenzing: We first met as freshers in Delhi University and became good friends. We stayed in touch after graduating and met up again in the San Francisco Bay Area where we both ended up doing our graduate studies. Ritu was doing her MFA in Film and Video at the California College of Arts and I was doing my MJ at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. We shared a love of cinema and spent all our free time watching movies. The Bay Area was full of art house cinemas and it was a great place for a film buff. We ended up doing a joint thesis project, our first film together: The New Puritans: The Sikhs of Yuba City. Somewhere between filming and editing, we fell in love and have been together ever since!

Our worldviews were very much shaped by the influences of the socio-cultural upheavals of the 60s and 70s – the radical student movements, the fight for social justice, the idealism of the hippy generation, and later, the music revolution of the punk era. Cinematically, we were die-hard disciples of our gurus: Renoir, Welles, Ozu, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Ray, Marker, etc. We devoured their films and discussed them endlessly with like-minded friends. Certainly, our dedication to filmmaking was formed by this period of intense film-watching.

Tenzing and Ritu during filming in Dharamsala, India. PHOTO: Courtesy Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin.

MfC: How did you become involved in documentary filmmaking together and what are your aspirations as filmmakers?

Ritu/Tenzing: As mentioned earlier, we decided to make a joint thesis project. The film we ended up making – The New Puritans: The Sikhs of Yuba City – came about because we discovered that the largest rural Sikh community outside of the Punjab was based in Northern California. The film looked at issues that continue to interest us to this day: exile, identity, generational conflict, multi-culturalism, etc.

As filmmakers, our aspiration is to explore subjects that interest and involve us at a personal level. For example, most of our films have something to do with Tibet. This is because we realised early on in our careers that there were very few films being made about Tibetan subjects from within the community, and as people who are deeply involved in the Tibet issue, we felt it was our responsibility to redress this shortcoming.

MfC: Tell us about how you like to work. What are the advantages of your chosen method and what are the limitations associated with it?

Ritu/Tenzing: We have been making films together since our student days in a career that spans nearly thirty years. Over this period, we’ve evolved a working method that capitalises on our individual strengths and minimises the potential of conflict by learning to make compromises. This has been relatively simple for us because we share so many of the same goals and ideals and we have great trust in each other’s judgment. The great advantage is that two minds working in harmony is often not only stronger but more fun than working alone, especially when engaged in a field that is as complex, uncertain and prone to ups and downs as filmmaking is. The limitations? Really can’t think of any!

MfC: Can media make a difference? If so, what are the things that an aspiring media change-maker should keep in mind?

Ritu/Tenzing: Media can certainly make a difference, not necessarily in a dramatic and immediately life-changing way, but in small increments, slowly, interactively and collaboratively. We believe that being part of this process is crucial to making long-term societal changes. But the media change-maker must understand that this is a collaborative process, that it takes many voices over a period of time to make change, and that in this regard, each individual voice is an integral part of the process that eventually impacts and affects people’s worldviews.

MfC: What are your plans for the future?

Ritu/Tenzing: We are embarking on our second feature film, The Sweet Requiem, a suspense drama about an exile Tibetan woman living in Delhi whose unexpected sighting of a man she holds responsible for her father’s murder on a Himalayan pass reawakens long-suppressed memories of her traumatic escape from Tibet and propels her on an obsessive search for reconciliation and closure.

We are just beginning the difficult process of raising finances.

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