WRITING WITH FIRE – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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One of the Dalit women journalists of Khabar Lahariya (‘Waves of News’), India’s only women-led news outlet, reporting a story, in the Oscar-nominated documentary WRITING WITH FIRE. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

WRITING WITH FIRE, a nominee for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar, is about India’s only women-run newspaper, a news source that has gone in digital since its founding in 2002, and one that covers stories overlooked by other news outlets, particularly on abuse, rape and corruption, with hard-hitting reporting and high journalistic standards. That is astonishing enough but the fact that all the women are also Dalits, the cast formerly known as untouchables, makes this news source seem nearly miraculous. But this is not fiction: these hard-working female reporters are the real thing.

WRITING WITH FIRE is one of two documentaries this past year about small news outlets doing journalism right, covering stories larger outlets won’t cover and serving their community and its right to know. The other one, STORM LAKE, tells an admirable story about an award-winning small town newspaper in the American heartland that is doing everything right, in a way so many larger news outlets no longer are. There is something hopeful in having two such uplifting documentaries, about the triumph of the “little guy,” in a year dominated by so much grimness.

In many ways, filmmakers Rintu Thomas’ and Sushmit Ghosh’s documentary WRITING WITH FIRE is the more amazing story. In 2002, a group of women in India established a women-run newspaper, Khabar Lahariya (‘Waves of News’). That is astonishing enough in a country where men dominate the news industry, and much of life generally. More amazing is that this group of women were also Dalits, the people once called “untouchables” who exist beyond the lowest level of India’s caste system. No one expected their newspaper to survive, yet it did. It still remains the only women-run paper in India.

Documentarians Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh follow these women as they engage in a fearless kind of journalism, reporting abuses and corruption no one else covers. Led by journalist Meera Devi, they investigate and report, but also train and encourage other Dali women who want to join them in doing what journalism is supposed to do: speaking truth to power. And they do that while battling both sexism and caste discrimination every day.

The title refers to several things, including the fiery devotion these women have to the mission of their news outlet for truth-telling, and their determination to covering stories that are too hot, too incendiary, for most other Indian media outlets. Often these are issues of particularly concern to women or to Dalits generally, who face prejudice and often live at the lowest rung of the economic ladder. But the title might also refer to their fierce commitment to each other.

These women journalists are committed to reporting untold stories with courage, but the whole operation serves another purpose: to encourage women who otherwise have little power to take control of their lives. The news outlet welcomes any woman who wants to join their effort, training them in reporting and giving them educational and job skills they never had before. All the staff work as a team, with a commitment to uplifting and supporting women like themselves. At the time the documentary was shot, the news outlet was actively embracing new media, arming their female reporters with smartphones for their work, women who have never owned a cell phone and might have little formal education. And it is impressive what these women can achieve with those tools and that encouragement.

The documentary follows the women journalists as they report on a series of stories, including one of serial rapes that have been ignored by both other media and the police. By digging deep and by dogged persistence, the reporters force both other media to recognize the crime and authorities to address it. The film also follows several individual stories, including one new young recruit with no education who discovers a self-confidence and ability she didn’t know she had before. Another thread focuses on a young woman who becomes a star reporter, and with eyes newly opened to life’s possibilities, embarks on higher education. Watching Meera Devi’s devotion to high journalistic standards and to covering the stories others won’t, combined with her skill and warmth as a mentor, is truly inspiring. The women are not only hard working but joyful in their work and fellowship with each other.

If you need a dose of uplift, in the face of all the negative things happening in the world now, WRITING WITH FIRE delivers that, just as these female reporters deliver the news their community needs. WRITING WITH FIRE, in Hindi with English subtitles, debuts on VOD on all major digital platforms on Mar. 22, and will have its TV debut on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on Mar. 28.

RATING: 4 out of 4 stars