DXIFF 2021 Review: Writing with Fire

Written by Maria Athayde

75/100

Writing with Fire is a “fly on the wall” documentary, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, about the women behind Khabar Lahariya, Waves of News in English, India’s only newspaper run entirely by women. This inside look into the women that run the Khabar Lahariya is much more than a story about journalism. It is also a story about social hierarchy, classism, familial relationships, democracy, personal risk, and a woman’s place in the work environment. If you are thinking this is a lot to cover in 94 minutes you are not mistaken. To provide context to their story and situate the viewers the directors use title cards throughout the documentary to try and tell the bigger story behind what we see on screen. At times, this framing device was distracting but it did not detract enough from my overall viewing experience. 

Founded in 2002, in Utter Pradesh, a state in Northern India close to the border with Nepal, we are introduced to the Khabar Lahariya newspaper and the women behind the operation. During the documentary we become most acquainted with Meera Devi, the paper’s chief reporter and later bureau chief. It is through her eyes that we understand how the Khabar Lahariya expanded from a small operation to a paper that now attracts significant following online with over 150 million views on their Youtube channel. Meera emphasizes throughout that she believes in the power of journalism and that journalism is the essence of a democracy. 

This story however is not just a glossy look into the power of journalism. Instead, it is a story of the personal risks associated with the profession. The women of the Khabar Lahariya along with the directors describe the risk associated with this profession in India. One reporter mentions that she is afraid about what her profession could mean to her family and that people question her professional integrity especially when unfavorable stories are published. We see these attacks on screen through comments on Khabar Lahariya Youtube channel that call the journalists names and insult their reporting. Thomas and Sushmit provide a bit more context to the personal risk associated with journalism when they use one of the final title cards for the movie to highlight that over 40 journalists have been killed during the last 20 years in India making it one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.     

The documentary really excels when it is telling the story about the newspaper and its evolution over its 19 years of existence. The most interesting way the filmmakers capture this transition is the juxtaposition of print journalism and the shift to digital reporting. It was fascinating to see how the majority of the women at the Khabar Lahariya quickly adapted to this transition to digital and capitalized on the potential digital reporting had to allow them to reach a bigger audience and and increase their income. Smartphones became the vehicle through which the women at the Khabar Lahariya told stories that would have most likely have gone unreported if it weren’t for them. 

There is nothing too innovative to see in this documentary stylistically. What sticks with you is the willingness of these journalists to go out there and capture these stories. Overall, this is mostly an inspirational piece of documentary filmmaking about the persistence of women who want to report on a story no matter the risks associated with it.

Writing with Fire Trailer

Writing with Fire was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

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