SIFF 2021 Review: Writing with Fire

Year: 2021

Runtime: 94 minutes

Directors: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh

By Joan Amenn

When asked what he thinks about his wife’s work as a journalist, the man answers that he “never expected [the newspaper where is wife works] to achieve anything” and “[the newspaper] won’t last for long.” This was after that specific newspaper, Khabar Lahariya, had already existed for over fourteen years and was transitioning to the Internet. Khabar Lahariya means “wave of news” and the relentless pursuit of the truth despite all odds pretty much sums up the mission statement of a group of intrepid women who make up the staff of this unique media outlet in India. The fact that they are all from the Dalit, or “untouchable” caste makes their success especially astonishing as this gripping, sometimes infuriating documentary shows.

The suffering of the Dalit people seems to know no end but is carefully hidden from the rest of the country and the world by the regional government. Women being raped seems so commonplace the local police don’t even bother investigating. As a matter of fact, the police don’t seem to do much at all unless the Khabar Lahariya journalists present the results of their investigative reporting to their followers on the Internet. In one especially devastating scene, a young woman reporter tries to comfort a man weeping quietly over the rape of one of his family members. If it doesn’t shatter your heart, you need to check yourself for a pulse.

The election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is shown as a cause for celebration in the streets but the reaction of the women journalists are starkly muted in contrast to all the partying around them. They see the religious fervor that he encourages as deflecting from the people in India who are most in need. Many Dalit do not have electricity and some do not even have indoor toilets. That these women persist in struggling to educate themselves in the technology needed for a 21st century news reporter while still living in such poverty that they cannot power the cellphones that they use to film their stories is awe inspiring. Their devotion to the cause of a free press when over forty journalists have been killed in India since 2014 and their loyalty to each other will make the viewer want to cheer them on.

 “Writing with Fire” captures the drive and ambition of the women of the Khabar Lahariya but we are left with a few questions about their origin, how did they find their headquarters and how do they fund their business when they themselves make it clear that so many of their fellow countrymen want nothing do to with women, much less Dalit women. Directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh do not make these journalists into superheroes and we see their struggle to reconcile their careers with the expectations of their society.  As one reporter says, “I believe that journalism is the essence of democracy.” The directors do not shy away from showing the toll of their commitment to their work on their lives. “Writing with Fire” is both exasperating and inspiring but there is no denying the deep respect the women of Khabar Lahariya have earned. They are not going anywhere and that is a promising sign for their country and its future

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