“Our reporting needs to become more nuanced,” Meera Devi tells a summit of reporters from her news outlet Khabar Lahariya in “Writing With Fire,” issuing a warning that isn’t motivated by quality, but by security as the rise of Hindu nationalism has created a climate where being more careful with one’s words is required. Khabar Lahariya has already defied the odds, publishing for nearly 14 years with a staff comprised entirely of Dalit women who turned to journalism as one of the only forms of recourse in India’s caste system where they’re held in little regard, and despite being questioned as much as they pose questions to others, their reports on dry irrigation systems, roads in poor repair and TB shots can move the local government to action.
At first, “Writing With Fire” seems as if it’s positioning itself to be a David vs. Goliath tale as Khabar Lahariya faces new challenges on two fronts – becoming a digital first outlet, adding YouTube videos to their print publication, and navigating an increasingly hostile government with the 2017 election of the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party that installs Yogi Adityanath, a proponent of extrajudicial killings, as a chief minister of Uttar Pradesh where the news outlet is based. However, directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas heed Devi’s words in making a film that’s both a meticulous act of journalism and about it, evolving into an intriguing consideration of its place in the contemporary world and in the lives of its central subjects for whom it’s an equalizer and tool of empowerment.
Following Devi and two other journalists at Khabar Lahariya – Suneeta, a miner’s daughter investigating the connection between the mafia and police after an accident in the mines draws little official attention, and Shyamkali, a mother of two whose husband is said to both ridicule her professional ambitions but also steal her wages, the film has a unique angle in addressing the class and gender issues that they face regularly as Dalit women in India, yet it also takes advantage of Khabar Lahariya’s relative infancy as a news outlet of limited means, showing an unglamorous news gathering process that involves exhausting travel (where their caste may prevent them from getting a place to stay overnight) and using smartphones to record video from enough angles to cut together into something compelling.
It may not be the point of “Writing With Fire” to linger on the work that goes into reporting when you can be more awed by the danger these particular journalists are putting themselves in, but as they gradually build up a subscriber base on their YouTube channel – as well as dismissive cries of “fake news” in the comments – it’s striking to see the process valued this way, even when what good it’s doing can be abstract to those toiling away at it. You get the sense that for as much instant gratification can come from seeing certain stories take off online or the small victories of helping people with small improvements in their communities, the enormity of larger systemic issues that seem unchanged in spite of the massive effort Khabar Lahariya puts into reporting on them can be overwhelming and as Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali wonder what difference they’re making, Ghosh and Thomas admirably present them as heroes only as much as they see themselves in those terms. Still, there’s quiet triumph in seeing the impact that their words have in creating agency for themselves no matter how far their stories go, putting a new spin on how the truth can set one free.
“Writing With Fire” will screen once more at the Sundance Film Festival for a 48-hour window starting on February 1st at 7 am MT.