Several times in the documentary “Writing With Fire,” we see women reporters standing alone in a crowd of men — cops, miners, political rallyists — asking gentle but firm questions. The women’s grit in the face of palpable hostility is impressive, and it becomes more so when you learn that they’re in Uttar Pradesh, an Indian province known for crimes against women, and that they are Dalits, or members of the country’s so-called untouchable caste.
These are the reporters of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only women-led newspaper. In “Writing With Fire,” the directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh follow the outlet’s pivot to digital coverage in the lead-up to the general election in 2019. Many of the women have never used smartphones or cameras, and for much of the film, the reporters train each other and exchange feedback in heartening displays of sororal solidarity.
Scenes from the reporters’ home lives emphasize how trivial these technical challenges seem compared to domestic ones. Meera, a veteran, tough-as-a-nut journalist, was married at 14 and earned three degrees while raising her children; the feisty Suneeta cannot get married because her parents can’t afford the dowries charged by men who would allow her to work.
But Thomas and Ghosh focus on arcs of resistance rather than repression, tracing how, as Khabar Lahariya’s YouTube channel rapidly gains followers, its stories achieve real results: a neglected town receives medical attention; a rapist is prosecuted. If the film’s brisk telling sometimes presents these victories as too easily won, it’s a necessary corrective to the skepticism the women still face (“They’re destined to fail,” Meera’s husband scoffs).
And at a time when the profession faces increasing dangers in India, the film’s faith in the powers of grassroots journalism is nothing short of galvanizing.
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