SUNDANCE 2021 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! As a film critic and journalist, the only real occupational hazards I encounter are mad filmmakers, actors with injured pride, and, perhaps, some light trolling. For the staff of India’s only woman-run newspaper, Khabar Lahariya (translated as “Waves of News”), the consequences for covering a particular story are far worse. The cost of coverage could very conceivably be their lives.
The documentary, Writing with Fire, takes the viewer to the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and introduces us to Meera, the Chief Reporter for Khabar Lahariya. Meera’s existence is not an easy one. For starters, she is an educated woman in a country that continues to see women as more of a societal burden than as valued members. Of course, an educated woman is desirable for marriage so long as once a woman completes her education, she assumes her proper place in society as a wife and homemaker and never mentions education again.
Meera is also a Dalit, belonging to a class of citizens considered the lowest of the low in the Indian caste structure. Directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh do a stellar job of instructing (like any good doc should) the viewer on the strict caste system that is the foundation of Indian society.
Lastly, Meera has a job, a dangerous job at that, and she isn’t solely dependent on her husband to take care of her and their family. This is nothing short of startling for a lady in this society and a position almost unconscionable for a Dalit woman.
But Meera possesses extraordinary pluck and fortitude. What is striking about the work that Meera and her colleagues, who form a sort of journalistic sorority, do is that they never exploit their woman-ness. They do not see themselves as “female journalists” but rather as “females who have chosen to be journalists.” Their primary objective is focused on exposing the corruption and inequity that they witness in their society.
“…Meera and her co-workers…report on horrifying incidents.”
And thank goodness that they do. Meera and her co-workers (including Suneeta, a fellow reporter that faces a personal and professional crossroads late in the film, and Shyamkali, a journalist that Meera takes under her wing) report on horrifying incidents, including organized crime and the habitual raping of women.
When focusing on some of these news stories, Writing with Fire tends to meander a bit. The movie spends a bit too much time on the people involved in the stories the women are reporting on at the expense of telling the story of the women doing the reporting. For instance, while interesting on its own, an abundance of time is spent detailing the ideologies of a young man named Satyam, the leader of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a Hindu religiopolitical cause, and the election of the BJP, the political party of Prime Minister Modi. It is interesting to see how their chauvinist subjects perceive these women reporters, but the film might have been tighter if less screen time was accorded to said subjects.
Still, the filmmakers are granted incredible access to the Dalit world, no doubt adding a measure of welcome security to the journalists as they go about their work. One gets the impression that had the cameras not been there to accompany them, there could very well have been times whereupon these women might have been in some extremely dangerous circumstances.
The movie grants access to Meera and her co-journalists during their treacherous day-to-day. In the process, I became acutely aware of my comparatively cushy journalism experience. The film will engender the same reflection upon the viewer, many of whom will watch Writing with Fire from the exclusive confines of their homes. Writing with Fire accomplishes what any good documentary should—it allows the viewer a visit into a world that they might never even have known to exist.
Writing With Fire screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…allows the viewer a visit into a world that they might never even have known to exist."