Independent journalism is currently under threat in many parts of the world, and in these trying times, journalists’ experiences can sometimes lead to stories that are as compelling as the topics they report on. That’s especially true for the staff of Khabar Lahariya, India’s women-run news outlet that is the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary Writing With Fire.
Directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, Writing With Fire is the first full-length Indian documentary to be nominated for an Academy Award, and follows the editors of Khabar Lahariya as they transition from 14 years of print publication to the digital medium. The film chronicles the experiences of several women on the outlet’s editorial team, largely from India’s oppressed Dalit caste, as they use smartphones, determination and compassion to shed light on scandal and speak the truth to power.
Depicting the staff of Khabar Lahariya’s struggle, Writing With Fire offers audiences a glimpse into a world that may seem alien to those unfamiliar with India’s rigid caste system and unique socio-political environment, but it also delivers many known frustrations. For example, the challenges women journalists face, especially in patriarchal environments, are widespread and well documented. The same can be said of the difficulty many news outlets have faced in transitioning to an increasingly online, digital audience.
Both issues play a major role in the uphill battle that Khabar Lahariya’s journalists are waging as they journey from remote villages to bustling cities in search of the truth.
While these elements set the stage for the film’s story, Writing With Fire also shows how the aforementioned problems (and countless others) are exacerbated by India’s vast wealth inequality and a caste system that degrades much of the population – including the majority of Khabar Lahariya’s reporters – to an ignored, “untouchable” social and economic class. That the women of Khabar Lahariya are able to achieve the level of access and reach they reach is a testament to their perseverance and courage – something Writing With Fire makes clear time and again during its fast 92 minute running time.
As the film points out, it may seem simple enough to train and equip a team of reporters with iPhones to record videos of public events and interviews. However, when many of the communities they report on (and for some, their own homes) have no electricity, the logistical dilemmas they face quickly become apparent.
Despite the events of Writing With Fire taking place a world away from many audiences, the film does a great job of finding the familiar in the reporters’ shared experiences. They report on deadly mining accidents, the denial of cases of sexual assault by local law enforcement and the rise of Hindu nationalism in the country’s politics, but corporate greed, government corruption and aggressive nationalism are not issues that are unique. are for India. The same can be said of many of the problems the women in the film face, whether they be dealing with troublesome officials or casual misogyny.
Writing with Fire could have easily yielded a detached observation from Khabar Lahariya and the wives of his pioneering editorial team, but the film’s directors strike just the right balance of storytelling to keep it both fascinatingly strange and familiar in equal measure. By doing so, they ensure that the film has as much to tell us about the women on the front lines of journalism in India as it does about the world just outside our doors.
Writing With Fire by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas has been nominated for an Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 27, and will make its television debut on PBS on March 28.