'Writing With Fire': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Writing With Fire - Sundance Film Festival - Publicity - H 2021
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Insightful and inspirational.

The struggles and triumphs of low-caste journalists in India's only all-female newspaper are chronicled in Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh's documentary.

A group of 20 or so women — young, barefoot and in saris — sit in a circle on the floor in the new documentary Writing With Fire. Comprising the staff of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only all-female newspaper (whose title translates to “waves of news”), the women are told that the publication will expand its online operations soon, and they must adapt. The digital divide among the journalists — rural women from the Dalit caste (India’s lowest, formerly called “the untouchables”) — quickly appears. One notes that it’s necessary to get articles out fast to win the race for eyeballs on social media, while another struggles to send emails on her first-ever phone, since the shortcut for that feature is “E,” a letter in a language (English) she doesn’t know.

Competing in this year’s international doc category at Sundance, Writing With Fire follows three reporters at Khabar Lahariya — and in so doing, portrays an India in flux. Times are changing, but not fast enough for these brave and idealistic women, whose mission to improve their corner of the world through their reportage invariably runs into resistance from officials, interviewees and their own husbands or fathers. Directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, the documentary is best at offering a peek into the lives of Khabar Lahariya’s scrappy, self-made women, who are well aware that they are claiming for themselves a profession largely occupied by upper-class men.

Meera is the veteran reporter of the trio, whom we first see interviewing a middle-aged rape victim and her husband. Four men have broken into their home repeatedly to sexually assault the woman, and the police have refused to file crime reports on their behalf, even going so far as to attack the couple themselves. “We don’t trust anyone but you,” the husband tells Meera — a claim that’s easy to believe. Stories in Khabar Lahariya, which tend to focus on local issues and violence against women, often yield swift and real impact. But when Meera goes home, her own husband, whom she married at the age of 14, tells the film crew that he only lets his wife work because he believes the small newspaper will fail any day now.

These contrasts between the journalists’ work and home lives are some of the most insightful scenes in Writing With Fire. “Everyone wants to marry an educated girl but won’t let her work after marriage,” sighs the father of Suneeta, a rising star at Khabar Lahariya. The staffers are accustomed to having their homes visited or forced into by powerful people they’ve critiqued, but the personal costs of continuing to work — let alone in journalism — mount too high for at least one of the women. Then there’s Shyamkali, a cub reporter, who seems untroubled by her decision to choose her calling over her abusive husband. (The film’s sense of intimacy and immediacy makes the viewer feel like they’re on a ride-along with the journalists, who are almost always bathed in flattering, natural light.)

Perhaps because this is Thomas and Ghosh’s first feature-length work, certain conspicuous details feel missing. We never really learn who founded Khabar Lahariya, for what purpose, what language(s) it’s published in or why it only hires women. It would also have been helpful to get a broader view of the staff — their age range (which seems to skew quite young), the life stages they’re in and how they came to learn about and work for the publication. The final third or so of the film, shot between 2016 and 2019, is dedicated to the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his platform of Hindu nationalism — a broad subject for which the doc doesn’t provide enough context, at least for this American viewer.

Still, the filmmakers illuminate plenty: the necessary negotiations with men for low-caste women to speak up in relative safety; how caste discrimination works, especially for working women; and perhaps most importantly, the change that can happen when the most marginalized members of a society empower themselves. They might have to ask permission from a rape victim’s husband if she can be interviewed, but they’ll eventually make sure that the violence that men prefer to commit under the shield of darkness be forced into the light.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production company: Black Ticket Films
Directors: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh
Producers: Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas
Executive producer: Patty Quillin, Hallee Adelman
Director of photography: Sushmit Ghosh, Karan Thapliyal
Editors: Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas
Composer: Tajdar Junaid

93 minutes