MOVIE OF THE WEEK Nov 26, 2021: WRITING WITH FIRE

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Feminism meets the fourth estate in Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas‘ powerful documentary Writing With Fire. As it tells the story of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only female-run news outlet, it both examines the media’s critical role in supporting democracy and celebrates the women who won’t let anything get in the way of telling the truth. Armed with smartphones and determination, they shed light on those whose stories are far too often kept hidden in the dark.

The film follows the Khabar Lahariya team — all of whom are part of the Dalit caste (formerly known as “untouchables”) — as they switch from print journalism to digital starting in 2016. The move is both exciting and nerve-wracking for the staff, which is led by chief reporter Meera and includes the ambitious Suneeta and the more hesitant Shyamkali, as well as many other women dedicated to reporting what’s happening in communities and families like their own. They show the impact of unsafe mining practices, force law enforcement officials to acknowledge crimes like rape, and hold those in power accountable.

At the same time, they grapple with what it means to be both Dalit and women in India. Neither is easy. Caught between social expectations and a desire for freedom, they balance marriage and motherhood with their demanding, sometimes dangerous jobs as journalists. As Suneeta says at one point, “I want a life with no constraints,” but that life is next to impossible for her to imagine.

Equally difficult to imagine until the last decade or so is the power that can be wielded by a palm-sized smartphone. Writing With Fire makes it crystal clear how much technology has contributed to the rise of citizen journalism and the ability to record the truth of what’s happening in the world. Who needs a printing press when you have YouTube? But protecting the right to use these new platforms is still essential, especially in a time when journalists like the women of Khabar Lahariya are under attack around the globe. Their persistence and dedication are the backbone of a free press. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: Marvel’s men and women in tights can step back. The real superheroes are in India, reporting for Khabar Lahariya, first as a newspaper and now on digital channels. These journalists are women, all Dalits, the lowest of the country’s castes. And they are absolutely fearless in a patriarchal society dominated by outdated cultural norms and a nationalist Hindu government, speaking truth to power as they confront rape culture, corrupt practices, and all forms of official and societal rot. Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh deliver an unflinching documentary that follows these women, particularly lead reporter Meera, as they go about their daily business in a journalistic landscape in which safety is not guaranteed and even seemingly minor stories represent potential danger. It is a nerve-wracking watch but one that is so rewarding. This is what courage looks like. This is what journalism in pursuit of truth instead of ratings, clicks, and circulations looks like.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Writing with Fire is a powerful documentary about the courageous collective of 40 rural Dalit women journalists who run a newspaper that focuses on the injustices of gender and caste-discrimination (particularly against the “untouchables” like the staff). These brave, intelligent, hard-working women expose the deep-seated prejudice that still exists in India – to the point that crimes against the Dalit aren’t taken seriously when reported to local authorities. Filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh not only introduce audiences to various editors/reporters but also to the types of stories they investigate (like the lack of indoor plumbing in certain villages, the repeated gang rape of an older Dalit woman by men who go unpunished, or mine safety violations that led to death or injury). An amazing story that humbles and inspires.

Marilyn Ferdinand Despite having the distinction of being the world’s largest democracy, India clings to its ancient traditions and illiberal ways to a truly shocking degree. The caste system is officially outlawed, yet it continues to govern human interactions at every level—from marriage, to employment, to housing. One group, the self-described Dalits, were considered so low that they were excluded from the caste system—and it is often the outsiders who can best critique the society in which they live. Writing with Fire chronicles the lives and activities of some intrepid Dalit women in India’s powerful Uttar Pradesh region who publish Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News). As with newspapers all over the world, these journalists are pivoting to online publishing to survive and tell the stories of rape, political corruption, and worker exploitation that most of the major media outlets don’t go near. Led by Meera, the managing editor, and ace reporter Suneeta, the staff learn journalism basics and reporting for electronic publication, gain in confidence, and find the courage to speak truth to power in a country that regularly murders its journalists. Watching the positive impact of their reporting on the lives of ordinary people is nothing short of breathtaking. Writing with Fire is one of the best movies of the year.

Leslie Combemale At the beginning, everyone said a newspaper run by women in the lowest caste would never work. Now KL has a staff of 29, hundreds of millions of hits on their YouTube channel, and has succeeded in a landscape that is still dominated by men. This is a story of women taking their destiny into their own hands, changing how the world sees them, how they see themselves, and literally changing the world at the same time. Writing with Fire shows them doing so, all while entertaining and educating its audience. Read full review.

Sherin Nicole “Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice.” Without a narrator or motion graphics but instead a thoughtfully observant focus, filmmakers Sushmit Ghosh & Rintu Thomas turn the narrative over to the journalists of the Khabar Lahariya, a woman run newspaper in Uttar Pradesh, where not only their stories but the stories of India are told. The news is meant to give voice to those who have gone unheard. Once called “untouchable” by the world, Meera, Suneeta and the other Dalit women are spreading a truth that is wildfire. Their bravery alone makes these journalists iconic. This quietly impactful documentary, Writing with Fire praises the impact of journalism, the act of speaking out, and its importance to those whom society has traditionally silenced.

Loren King Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s extraordinary documentary introduces us to a band of inspiring and intrepid Dalit women— a group on the lowest rung of India’s caste system — who against all odds and at great personal risk launched and maintain Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper that exposes injustice in remote India. Like this year’s A Thousand Cuts about journalist Maria Ressa’s fearless struggle to report government corruption in the Philippines, Writing With Fire is blazing evidence that a free press is the lifeblood of democracy.

Susan Wloszczyna: 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. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin Writing with Fire is a stirring documentary about the women journalists who report for, edit and publish the only women-run newspaper in India. They are Dalit women — members of India’s lowest caste, formerly known as ‘untouchables’ — and they are undeniably heroic in their investigative reportage, exposure of corruption, struggle to gain equal rights and justice for women and members of the Dalit community, and finding ways to keep publishing their singularly important and impactful newspaper. Kudos to filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh for introducing journalists Meera Devi, Shyamkali Devi and Suneeta Prajapati to us in this very compelling documentary about their lives, heroism and career struggles.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Writing with Fire is a powerful documentary about the courageous collective of 40 rural Dalit women journalists who run a newspaper that focuses on the injustices of gender and caste-discrimination (particularly against the “untouchables” like the staff). These brave, intelligent, hard-working women expose the deep-seated prejudice that still exists in India – to the point that crimes against the Dalit aren’t taken seriously when reported to local authorities. Filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh not only introduce audiences to various editors/reporters but also to the types of stories they investigate (like the lack of indoor plumbing in certain villages, the repeated gang rape of an older Dalit woman by men who go unpunished, or mine safety violations that led to death or injury). An amazing story that humbles and inspires.

Loren King Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s extraordinary documentary introduces us to a band of inspiring and intrepid Dalit women— a group on the lowest rung of India’s caste system — who against all odds and at great personal risk launched and maintain Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper that exposes injustice in remote India. Like this year’s “A Thousand Cuts” about journalist Maria Ressa’s fearless struggle to report government corruption in the Philippines, Writing With Fire is blazing evidence that a free press is the lifeblood of democracy.

Liz Whittemore This generation of women intends to change the balance of power for their daughters. As Khabar Lahariya‘s YouTube channel gains momentum, the government takes notice. They are making positive changes in the communities they cover. The seemingly simple act of teaching their staff to use technology gives these women the confidence to take on their male-dominated world. Education is the first step to achieving equality. Meera sums up the paper’s spirit quite succinctly, “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy.” Writing With Fire is nothing less than newsworthy. Read full review.

Cate Marquis In 2002, a group of women in India established their own newspaper. That is astonishing enough in a country where men dominate the news industry, but 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, and still remains the only women-run paper in India. In Writing with Fire, 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, report, and also train and encourage other Dali women who want to join them in doing what journalism is supposed to do: speaking truth to power.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Writing with Fire

Directors: Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

Release Date: November 24, 2021

Running Time: 93 minutes

Language: Hindi with English subtites

Screenwriter: Documentary

Distribution Company: Music Box Films

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).