To watch “Writing With Fire” is to get a crash course in journalism fundamentals.
The documentary from Indian filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, up for best documentary feature at the 94th Academy Awards, points the camera at Khabar Lahariya, an independent newsroom in rural northern India run by women from historically marginalized communities – Dalits, Muslims, those from indigenous tribes and other “lower” castes.
“Writing With Fire” captures Khabar Lahariya (Hindi for “news waves”) at a specific point in its now two decades of operation: An early scene depicts a 2016 meeting about the organization’s pivot from print newspaper to digital. But the focus is more on the method than the medium.
The film follows the journalists of Khabar Lahariya over four years as they report on an array of issues in their home state of Uttar Pradesh. Chief reporter Meera investigates the government’s claim that every household has access to a toilet. Suneeta, a former child miner, reports on the damages of illegal mining. Shyamkali, a domestic abuse survivor, seeks information from police on a rape case.
At each turn, the women navigate not only challenges familiar to many journalists – evasive authority figures, media skepticism, low camera batteries – but also the added barriers that come with being women in a patriarchal society dominated by “upper” castes. The ways they handle precarious situations are a demonstration of their journalistic prowess. They hold their own among heckling men and convince them to go on the record. They interview survivors of sexual assault with sensitivity, and show empathy for religious extremists without letting their positions go unchallenged.
CNN spoke to Thomas and Ghosh about the making of “Writing With Fire” and the lessons they learned from the journalists of Khabar Lahariya. At a time when press freedom and democracy around the world are under threat, Ghosh said the film is a testament to the impact that a “fiercely, doggedly independent news institution” can have.
Since that conversation, however, Khabar Lahariya released a statement calling “Writing With Fire” an incomplete representation of its work, adding that “part stories have a way of distorting the whole sometimes.” The organization emphasized that its reporting has interrogated more than “just one particular political party” and that much of the work has been unglamorous. Khabar Lahariya did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for further comment.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to focus on Khabar Lahariya?
Thomas: A photographer had done a photo story on Khabar Lahariya, and that’s the first time that we got to know about their work. They’d been around for 14 years as a print newspaper then.
When we met them [in 2016] and got to know about their work, they told us that they’re doing this meeting where they’re going to discuss this pivot to digital. That scene that you saw in the film where Meera is making the pitch is really the first time we met them. We were fortunate to have our cameras with us. To see an organization that was fully run by women – women from marginalized communities who are mostly invisible in the media landscape – telling their own stories, with their own agency, really spoke to us.
How did you get the staff to open up to you?
Thomas: They were curious to know why we wanted to tell their story. They had been subjects of some other documentaries before so they knew what the process is. It helped that they themselves understood the power of being in front of the camera and behind the camera.
We didn’t know what the story was going to be, but we knew that we didn’t want this to be the story of women who are victims. We also didn’t want this to be a narrative about superhero women who are saving the day. These were very ordinary women with an extraordinary spirit. We really wanted to understand: Where did they get this spirit from? When they build something together, what does that look like?
How did the journalists of Khabar Lahariya navigate the delicate situations they often found themselves in?
Ghosh: We came into this story at their fourteenth year, so they already had a body of work and also a deep understanding of how to move through spaces of deep trauma and spaces that are clearly hostile. While we were filming, there were many occasions where they were heckled or torn down or mansplained [to], but they found exceptional ways of negotiating out of it.
Thomas: There’s also a lot of trust for them – what I would call street cred. They are journalists from the communities that they are reporting on – it’s not a journalist who’s coming from a city, doing a story and leaving. They understand the dynamics of the space very intimately, so when they show up, people are generally inclined to talk to them. That was beautiful to watch in an environment where media is increasingly not trusted.
What were some of the barriers that the women of Khabar Lahariya were up against?
Thomas: In the region in which they work, women – especially Dalit women – were never considered to be journalists. That used to be the forte of dominant caste men.
In the film, you see a lot of men in public spaces staring, because it’s pretty unusual to have intelligent, articulate women who are asking relevant questions. So it starts from there: The disbelief that men or people in positions of power have over a woman who’s come to ask the question. Yet over the years, we’ve seen how that dismissal has grown into a muted respect. That speaks to the power of the work that Khabar Lahariya has done.
For instance, if there is an accident on a road, a lot of media outlets would cover it as breaking news. Khabar Lahariya’s interest is in why this road keeps having these accidents. Let’s investigate the budget allocated for that road in that financial year. Once we figure that out, let’s question how much was spent, what’s lying unspent and what happened in the middle. That’s where not only do you become better journalists, you’re also creating better consumers.
Ghosh: It speaks to this larger question of what happens when you diversify the newsroom: Who controls the news, and who ends up telling whose stories? Most newsrooms traditionally have been controlled by middle-aged men, and India has been no different. [Khabar Lahariya’s approach to journalism] flips that entire narrative, and you see the effects of that: Roads are getting built, health care, education, the last mile delivery of fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution are being provided to every citizen.
Did making this film force you to grapple with your own caste privilege at all?
Thomas: I acknowledge upfront that there is a difference in class and caste. How that translates for us in the process of filmmaking is that we don’t become the voice of the people that we depict. We want to create a story where they are themselves telling their story.
At the heart of it, what they stood for and what we stand for merged and we took off from that point. Their idea of what a just society and our idea of what a women-led world would look like merged. You try not to become their voice and that’s where the difference lies.
Was there a moment where those differences were especially clear?
Thomas: The scene in the film where Suneeta meets a very aggressive crowd when she’s reporting a story on a broken road was quite powerful for me personally. When she showed up there, very quickly it changed into something different and aggressive. She stays and continues filming and really turns the temperature [down] in that situation with such flair and professionalism.
Afterwards, I asked her, “What was this about? It became so aggressive.” And she said, “For you, this is new, but for us, this is every day.” I’ve been in pretty tough positions, but still it does not match being a rural woman journalist in these parts where you have to do this over and over again on an everyday basis. At the same time, I was amazed by the sense of compassion that she had [for the people she was reporting on].
What lessons did you learn from the journalists of Khabar Lahariya?
Thomas: The art of agreeing to disagree. It’s hard to practice on an everyday basis, but we saw them doing it at home, in professional spaces with their male peers, in interviews with people in positions of power. Doing that in a way that’s not aggressive or confrontational but gets the job done takes a certain amount of courage.
Courage itself has many contours. It sometimes is about standing up for what you believe in. And it’s sometimes about holding back and letting the storm pass and re-strategizing.
What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
Ghosh: You have to actively work to create a more just, equitable society. We’re living in a world where we are being hammered with problems where you feel microscopic. But it’s about going back to who you are as an individual, your place in the world and what you do to become an active agent of change.
That’s what “Writing With Fire” is essentially about: Hope comes from the quarters where you least expect it. And if it can come from there, what is stopping us with all our privilege?
Thomas: That cool women need to be in positions of power. This film is a testimony to what happens when women are in positions of leadership. In Khabar Lahariya, they uplift each other. It’s strict. There’s a lot of accountability, but there’s also gentleness. We don’t see that a lot in our culture. If we can look at the spaces that we are in and say, “Where are the women? And who’s my boss?” I think the world would be a different place.