WRITING WITH FIRE – Review by Susan Wloszczyna

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We are told early on in the documentary Writing With Fire that Uttar Pradesh, in north India, suffers from endemic levels of violence against women and Dalits – a group once known as “the untouchables” — that is so low in the existing caste system that they aren’t even part of it. But in 2002, a group of Dalit woman in the region decided to launch their own newspaper. They were expected to fail, but instead they created a revolution with an all-female staff that sought to improve their country by pressing authority figures to protect and serve their citizenry.

Khabar Lhariya – which translates into “waves of news” — is India’s only newspaper that is run entirely by women. These fearless journalists are the subject of directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s doc debut. We quickly leap ahead and get to the meat of the matter when chief reporter Meera goes to interview a middle-aged rape victim and her much-rattled husband. The woman reveals that she was attacked repeatedly by four men who broke into her house while she was alone.

Veteran journo Meera asks if she contacted the police, but the wife says they refused to lodge her complaint. She says, “They threatened us and assaulted my husband and me,” noting that, “These men can do anything.” Meera then walks down to the police station and says she wants to discuss a case and hold them accountable, revealing that the husband has lodged a complaint five times. His reply? “I’m not aware of this case.” Little wonder that the husband says, “We don’t trust anyone but you.”

On the upside, the coverage given to an outbreak of TB in a village that has no doctors leads to offers of medical assistance. And a severely damaged road gets fixed by the local administration thanks to the paper’s reporting. Meanwhile, a dried-up canal is filled with water once more, making farmers happy.

Meera and her cohorts believe that journalism is the essence of democracy, and both will eventually lead to justice. Back at the office, she tells the staff that the paper must go digital to keep up with the times, with an online website and an investment in social media that could lead to more sources of income. Also, they all must get accustomed to using cell phones to record the news, with videos as an integral part of their daily work routines.

We then follow Meera and the paper’s rising star, Suneeta, as they check on a mafia-run illegal mine that caused a group of workers to be buried alive. They interview a man whose brother confronted the thugs and ended up stoned to death. Meanwhile, the dangerous pit is still being used and an explosion creates an avalanche of rocks. A man in a crowd questions Suneeta’s motives and she swiftly tells him to stop patronizing her and just give her an interview. Yes, these journos take no prisoners.

These self-made, dedicated women must put up with being questioned by know-it-all men all the time, even those they are married to. Meera’s husband, who she wed at the age of 14, says to the film crew that he only lets his spouse work because he thought the paper was doomed to fail. But with a big election to cover and the switch to digital, the paper seems to be making bigger waves than ever as it achieves ever-mounting YouTube views for their video interviews. The down side is that is that social media leads to user comments that could expose the staff to threats and worse.

Shyamkali, another up-and-coming reporter, covers a rape case and within a week of her story being published, the guilty party is arrested and prosecuted. Such triumphs are duly noted. But there is definitely a toll to be had on the women’s personal lives as one notable staffer feels the need to make her family happy by getting married. Meanwhile Shyamkali speaks candidly about her husband who used to taunt her about her work and started stealing her salary while abusing and beating her. Her solution? She filed a case of domestic violence against him.

Yes, it is somewhat difficult to parse exactly what effect the 2019 election of Prime Minister Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, whose campaign takes up the final third of the film. But the filmmakers behind the camera know they have found gold in capturing the personal lives of these intrepid crusaders as they celebrate these supposed societal outcasts who are determined to stand up for what is right for their fellow citizens.

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Susan Wloszczyna

In her nearly 30 years at USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna interviewed everyone from Vincent Price and Shirley Temple to Julia Roberts and Will Smith. Her coverage specialties include animation, musicals, comedies and any film starring Hayley Mills, Sandy Dennis or hobbits. Her crowning career achievements so far, besides having Terence Stamp place his bare feet in her lap during an interview for The Limey, is convincing the paper to send her to New Zealand twice for set visits, once for The Return of the King and the other for The Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong, and getting to be a zombie extra and interview George Romero in makeup on the set for Land of the Dead. Though not impressive enough for Pulitzer consideration, she also can be blamed for coining the moniker "Frat Pack," often used to describe the comedy clique that includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Her positions have included Life section copy desk chief for four years and a film reviewer for 12 years. She is currently a contributor for the online awards site Gold Derby and is an Oscar expert for RogerEbert.com. Previously, she has been a freelance film reporter and critic, contributing regularly to RogerEbert.com, MPAA’s The Credits, the Washington Post, AARP The Magazine online and Indiewire as well as being a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. She previously worked as a feature editor at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A Buffalo native, she earned her bachelor's degree in English at Canisius College and a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.