Review: 'Writing With Fire' a Remarkable Documentary About Vital Community Voices

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 29, 2021

Meera and Shyamkali in 'Writing With Fire'
Meera and Shyamkali in 'Writing With Fire'  (Source:Courtesy of Music Box Films)

Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh's remarkable documentary "Writing With Fire" explores India's entirely women-run newspaper Khabar Lahariya, or Waves of News.

Not only is the media outlet female-forward, but it's also staffed by Dalits, the "untouchables," or lowest rung on the culture's hierarchical system. "Journalism is the essence of democracy," one reporter notes, as the tight team battles entrenched classism and rampant sexism.

The publication started as a newspaper, then, to reach a broader audience, added digital platforms with content offered on YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Most had never used smart phones, so they receive training on how to record interviews, landscape-justified videos, and sound bites in the field.

But using the technology is difficult, since many don't have electricity in their homes in order to charge their equipment. And those are the types of quotidian issues the women report on, like the inability of the Uttar Pradesh state government, as well as the national agencies, to provide citizens with reliable electricity, passable roads, functional irrigation canals, and access to indoor toilets.

The 30 reporters in 13 districts reach five million viewers a month on multiple platforms, and also report on violent mafias running local mines, seemingly illegal electioneering, and uninvestigated rapes.

Dalit women, especially, get no help from police after such crimes, so the reporters press local officials for investigations and prosecutions. Their mining stories were picked up by national media, and yet the brave women still catch grief from their neighbors and spouses, who often demand that their wives quit working and stay at home. Mansplaining is rampant throughout their lives and this 90-minute documentary, as are the trolls in the comments of their postings, who copy American extremists by calling them "sluts" and their work "fake news."

The American parallels are striking. The film documents "Mother India" also holding a controversial national election in 2019, where the leading party encouraged violent religious zealots much like America's Q cultists and evangelicals. A reporter asks, "What has god got to do with politics?" as the men don orange turbans instead of red MAGA hats and pose with swords instead of a Rittenhouse AR-15 rifle.

"We can't let the fourth pillar fall," one says, "because we are a mirror to society." The women are bucking the caste system established around 1500 BCE, along with omnipresent misogyny, yet their voices are growing. The film shows them pushing back against sexism and improving their digital literacy by learning more English (to better utilize their phones), plus more effective techniques for scripting, editing, reporting, and finding story angles.

The Khabar Lahariya women are intrepid storytellers and vital community voices. "My work helped me overcome the fear of leaving my village," a woman shares. And their collective fearlessness is inspiring. Over 40 Indian journalists have been killed since 2014, but nevertheless, these truth-tellers have persisted.

"Writing with Fire" opened on November 26 at theaters in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, and will open in more cities in December.

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at KarinMcKie.com