By Faith Ho (22A01A)
The pen is mightier than the sword.
Nowhere is this more apparent than a scene in Writing With Fire, where journalist Meera Devi video-interviews a rising youth political leader who demonstrates pulling out a sword. The blade’s edges catch the straggling lines of light in the dark space as it arcs in the small space. She only looks at him unflinchingly.
Writing With Fire is a critically acclaimed documentary that delves into Khabar Lahariya, a small independent journalism company in India run by women in Uttar Pradesh, India. It was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2022 Oscars, and is a 2021 Sundance Film Festival Winner. Among its other glowing reviews, it was also chosen as the New York Times’ Critics’ Pick.
All for good reason—it is an incisive and inspiring look into the power of journalism.
The Power of the Powerless
At its heart, this documentary is all about power: the hidden strength of the powerless against the powerful.
“Being a journalist means you are an upper-caste man.”
Most of the journalists featured face challenges on multiple fronts—they are not only women, but Dalits (“untouchables”). In India, the practice of caste discrimination still persists; at the bottom of the social hierarchy are the Dalits, who are systematically discriminated against and are often denied jobs, living spaces and access to the law.
The documentary gives frequent reminders of the rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal society the female journalists inhabit, and of their systematic disempowerment. From the patronisation and open derision of their work by of male journalists to antagonism, threats and the pervading fear of personal danger, they face difficulties at every turn.
Yet, this provides the backdrop to inspiring and astonishing actions: speaking up and reporting about the mining mafia, sexual assault cases, and questioning politicians. There is a compelling narrative in that despite the odds stacked against them, the women steadfastly persist in their pursuit of the truth.
“Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice.”
These journalists go beyond being merely dutiful recorders of stories, but active advocates for the people. They are “on the ground” reporters in every sense of the word, talking to people in the villages, on the roads, and at the mines. Their reporting often led to tangible outcomes—the persecution of sexual assault cases after weeks of inaction, the repair of roads, the building of electricity infrastructure.
Their capacity for both bold investigation as well as compassion for the people is heartfelt. When reporter Suneeta Prajapati interviews a father of a girl who has been sexually assaulted, he begins to cry, unable to speak. She slowly lowers the camera, and tells him, “We feel your pain.”
This is journalism not for commercial or political purposes, but for the people, truly.
The documentary also provides a look into the contentious political landscape of India: the rise of populist leaders and the use of religion to power political agendas. Amidst these, these women stand alone but strong.
Their coverage of the elections strives to be unlike other major media outlets (which often pander to the dominant political party) by questioning motives, policies, and concrete actions of politicians. (This being said, Khabar Lahariya has contended with what they perceive to be the overemphasis on this element of challenging politics in the documentary, in a statement released on their website.)
Women Behind The Writing
Woven between their jobs is an exploration of these women’s personal stories.
Many of them come from difficult backgrounds—one had worked at the mines since she was ten, and many were married from young ages, like fourteen. When the company started to transition to digital journalism, most of them had never seen a smartphone before. One didn’t even have electrical sockets at her home to charge it.
At home, support is scarce. Many reporters balance work with household responsibilities. In fact, key reporter Meera Devi’s husband initially did not allow her to work. Her daughter was punished because Meera did not have time to tie two plaits for her daughter due to her work. Modern feminism purports the idea of women who can “have it all”, but this documentary shows the limits and struggles with that ideal.
The most heartwarming part of the documentary is arguably when the women go on their biennial team retreat. They sit together in the rented space, talking about their hopes and dreams, but also about their fears revolving around the political climate and the survival of their newsroom. Amidst that uncertainty, there is a clear sense of mutual empowerment.
It is, however, impossible to escape the fact that their private lives are inextricably intertwined with the society they live in. Suneeta is eventually pressured into marriage, something that may result in her having to quit her job.
In a short but choking interview, she talks about the impossibility of remaining as a single woman in her society. She asks, “Should I sacrifice my freedom to protect my family’s honour?”
Craft and Conflict
Moving to the subject of craft, interspersed with footage from Khabar Lahariya, the documentary is shot beautifully. Scenes of the landscape and travelling serve as the backdrop, contrasted against their on-the-ground interviews. The juxtaposition of the two gives audiences a sense of scale and miniature.
My favourite sequence in the film occurs near the end, as the journalists report on a festive religious celebration. The hubbub of the crowd cuts to melancholic music that plays over various scenes: flashing colours of various celebrating crowds, then a long meditative shot of Suneeta at her wedding, looking away from the camera, expression unreadable.
That singular moment is powerful, but in a different way, underscoring the ambivalence we see in the documentary. Even as we watch and applaud these women’s bravery and the power of their work, there remains a palpable and real sense of fear and uncertainty, both of the survival of their newsroom and of themselves.
“We can redefine what it means to be powerful.”
Perhaps the title captures this documentary best. Writing With Fire is exactly that: an exploration of the fiery passion and bravery these women have for their work. Journalism that just like fire, is both powerful and dangerous, but can inspire and spark change.