Writing with Fire, 2021.
Directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh.
In a cluttered news landscape dominated by men emerges India’s only newspaper run by Dalit women. Chief reporter Meera and her journalists break traditions, redefining what it means to be powerful.
A piece of documentary filmmaking as necessarily courageous as its incredible subjects, Writing with Fire scooped both the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary and World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Impact for Change at this year’s Sundance.
Directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh embed themselves with the reporters of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only all-woman news outlet, who as “Dalits” – members of the lowest caste in the country – are effectively seen as pariahs, and presumed incapable of ever becoming “legitimate” journalists.
But the women of Khabar Lahariya are a uniquely motivated bunch, pushed forward by their doggedly determined chief reporter Meera, who spearheads the paper’s efforts to expose rampant sexual abuse against women, police ineptitude, and political corruption in the region, all of these ills linked in the uniquely complicated tapestry of India’s socio-political structure.
Yet the most immediate challenge facing Meera and her colleagues might be the fast-shifting nature of the media landscape, forcing the paper to adopt a more digital-centric presence in order to have a chance of survival. The result is an inspiring if often upsetting film tackling the myriad issues Dalit women face in contemporary India, fighting to grow their own enterprise in a nation still shackled to its painfully outmoded past.
Batting away caste prejudice is just one part of the equation; patriarchal hegemony forces Meera to, often unsuccessfully, try to balance her life’s work with her status as a wife and mother. Her children are struggling at school and she has little time to educate them at home, while her husband staunchly believes she should be seeing to her “home duties” first.
One of her on-the-rise colleagues meanwhile grapples with the enormous pressure placed upon her by both family and society to be married off to a husband, the alternative being to “shame” the family name. In this structure, a woman who wants to work will generally cost her father a higher dowry, and some landlords simply won’t rent property to a female journalist.
Factor in the additional issues of police officers brazenly turning a blind eye to rape, everyday people unwilling to speak out against the state for fear of reprisals, and a government blatantly sunning itself on propaganda, and it’d be no surprise if Meera and many like her simply gave up.
This is without even getting into the technical roadblocks their low-status living presents to adapting to digital reporting – namely being unable to charge phones without electricity at home, and most reporters’ lack of any formal journalistic training, forcing Meera to teach her newer colleagues a crash course in journalistic ethics.
Despite depicting such rampant institutional decay, it’s nevertheless hugely encouraging to see the paper’s online presence flourish, even as they fight enormous uphill battles and often pause to wonder what they’re forced to live through – in some cases, unsurprisingly, quitting the news business altogether. Given that 40 journalists have been killed in India since 2014 it’s especially predictable, to say nothing of daily harassment, threats, and targeted fake news campaigns intended to create a vacuum of division and distrust.
Progress is slow but it is certainly made, Khabar Lahariya counting almost 500,000 YouTube subscribers at the time of press, while Meera and those who have persevered against immeasurable turmoil have found their tireless efforts worthwhile in enacting significant change in their community.
Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s filmmaking may be relatively no-frills but that’s all it needs to be; the incredible access speaks for itself, paying tribute to the democratic potential of good news media to be a cornerstone of justice, a form of female empowerment, and hold the mighty to account.
Though tough to watch at times, Writing with Fire is a potent testament to the media’s power to agitate authority and cause positive change – and the responsibility with which such power should be wielded.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.