By C.J. Hirschfield
The recent convictions in the Ahmaud Arbery case were only possible thanks to a video shot on a smartphone; the device is now ubiquitous around the world and is shining light in places where darkness used to thrive.
The power of this portable camera to obtain justice is never more apparent than in the brilliant new documentary WRITING WITH FIRE now playing in theaters. The movie follows the lives and journalistic pursuits of reporters from India’s Dalit (formerly called untouchables) caste, who write for the country’s only news platform run by women.
At the film’s beginning, the Khabar Laharia publication is transitioning to a digital format and has only a limited number of followers on YouTube. At the time of this writing, the platform is reaching over 3 million viewers each month. The growth is impressive but is nothing compared to the courage and commitment shown by the young reporters as they face very real challenges related to caste and gender not only in the field, but in their own homes as well (many of which lack electricity).
WRITING WITH FIRE’s filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh have already won 25 major awards at top international festivals, including the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival for their thoughtful portrayal of real-life heroines.
The women in WRITING WITH FIRE have very real struggles outside of their risky journalistic pursuits: Learning English, mastering the new technology, and dealing with a society—which includes their own families—that strongly discourages women from becoming educated, working outside of the home, and choosing to remain unmarried.
They are trained, assisted and inspired by chief reporter Meera, whose professionalism, patience and courage has her teaching by example, one that keeps them on track, and undeterred. And this is a good thing, because it takes perseverance to deal with police, village administrators and local mafia whose views of women, reporters, and women reporters could not be less respectful.
The issues are critical, including an illegal mine that is killing villagers, impassable roads, lack of irrigation, and repeated rapes being conducted with impunity. Interviews with villagers are hindered by their fears of arrest for speaking out. The team of women reporters is tenacious, and positive changes start to result from the exposure they bring to the concerns. The team is tested when the biggest national election in India’s history is held in 2019, with stakes and tensions that are extremely high.
We — and they– are offered a break from the intensity of their reportage when the team is invited to Sri Lanka to speak about the trolling of women journalists. In a wonderful scene, these fearless women are able to relax and play in the snow, and we realize just how young they really are.
The film is beautifully shot, and the original score adds much to the whole.
Over 40 journalists have been killed in India since 2014; it is one of the deadliest countries in which to practice journalism.
The women of Khabar Laharia, armed for the first time with smartphones and a powerful international platform, are bravely picking up and amplifying injustice, and this film will hopefully help further their cause.
Exclusively in theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and now open at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco, SFIFF Film Centre in Seattle, Chez Artiste in Denver, Living Room Theaters in Portland, Indianapolis, and Boca Raton with more screenings around the country throughout the winter.
Check for your local showings here.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
All photos courtesy of Music Box Films
Support the Crowd-Funder
Writing With Fire Directors Interview with Amanda Ferguson
Watch many short videos, some with English subtitles on the Khabar Laharia YouTube channel.
“Writing With Fire:” Women Journalists on the Front Lines in India | Amanpour and Company
Splice Low-Res interviews Kavita Devi, co-founder and editor of Khabar Lahariya, and Disha Mullick, the CEO of Chambal Media, the company that runs Khabar Lahariya.