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Writing with Fire review: Nevertheless, they persist

Independent journalism is threatened in many areas of the world right now, and during these difficult times, journalists’ experiences can occasionally make for stories as captivating as the topics they report on. That’s particularly true for the staff of Khabar Lahariya, India’s women-run news outlet that’s the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary Writing with Fire.

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Directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, Writing with Fire is the first feature-length Indian documentary to be nominated for an Academy Award, and follows the editorial team at 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 of India’s oppressed Dalit caste, as they use smartphones, determination, and compassion to shed light on scandals and speak truth to power.

In depicting the staff of Khabar Lahariya’s struggles, Writing with Fire offers audiences a look at a world that might seem strange to those unfamiliar with India’s rigid caste system and unique sociopolitical environment, but it also delivers plenty of familiar frustrations, too. The challenges faced by women journalists — particularly in patriarchal environments — are widespread and well documented, for example. The same can be said for the difficulty many news outlets have faced in transitioning to an increasingly online, digital audience.

Both issues factor heavily into the uphill battle waged by the journalists of Khabar Lahariya as they journey from remote villages to crowded cities in pursuit of the truth.

A woman records an interview with an iPhone in a scene from Writing With Fire.

While those elements set the stage for the film’s narrative, Writing with Fire also depicts how the aforementioned issues (and countless others) are amplified by India’s massive wealth disparity and a caste system that relegates a large portion of the population — including the bulk of Khabar Lahariya’s reporters — to an ignored, “untouchable” social and economic class. That the women of Khabar Lahariya are able to attain the level of access and reach they achieve is a testament to their perseverance and courage — something Writing with Fire makes clear time and time again throughout its swift 92-minute running time.

As the film indicates, training and equipping a team of reporters with iPhones in order to record videos of public events and interviews might seem simple enough. However, when many of the communities they report on (and for some, their own homes) don’t have electricity, the logistical dilemmas they face quickly become clear.

Two women discuss how to use an iPhone in a scene from Writing With Fire.

Despite the events in Writing with Fire taking place a world away from many audiences, the film does a wonderful job of finding the familiar in the reporters’ shared experiences. They report on deadly mining accidents, local law enforcement’s dismissal of sexual assault cases, and the rise of Hindu nationalism in the country’s politics, but corporate greed, government corruption, and aggressive nationalism aren’t problems unique to India. The same can be said for many of the problems the women face in the film, whether they’re dealing with difficult public officials or casual misogyny.

Writing with Fire could have easily delivered a detached observation of Khabar Lahariya and the women of its groundbreaking editorial team, but the film’s directors find just the right balance of narratives to keep it both fascinatingly foreign and familiar in equal measures. In doing so, they ensure 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.

Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’ Writing with Fire is nominated for an Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 27, and will have its television debut on March 28 on PBS.

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