The need for diverse voices in journalism has never been greater, but many challenges remain in providing access. Locally, nationally and internationally, diverse journalists from all disciplines grapple with issues of access and inclusion. The film write with firepremiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize: Impact for Change, crystallizes this challenge by telling the story of the Khabar Laharia newspaper from Uttar Pradesh in India. The newspaper is run by a team of Dalit women who are radically disrupting the caste system that traditionally assigned them to menial jobs. In doing so, they set a new standard for Dalit women and for journalism. Nominated for an Oscar in Competitive Field, the film is an underdog for the win, but was portrayed by Jason Rezaian in the Washington Post as “The most inspiring journalism film – perhaps ever.”
Filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh find themselves drawn to making films about the outcast. In an interview during Sundance, Thomas said, “There are a lot of things in this world that are wrong. We just think it’s our responsibility as storytellers to offer another perspective. Most of our characters are people without resources or influence, mostly semi-literate or illiterate, so (we like to film) when those people can have a vision and inspire people around them to rally for change.
The film follows three women, Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali, on the eve of Khabar Lahariafrom print to digital. This transition is further complicated by the fact that many female journalists are not only illiterate, but have never used a mobile phone before. Women quickly master not only the learning curve of technology, but also the art of reporting, while juggling the marital demands of maintaining a traditional household. Meera’s husband struggles with his choice in the film, saying, “When there’s a man in the house, how can a woman work?” Meera’s father astutely notes, “Everyone wants to marry an educated girl, but don’t let her work after marriage, so why marry her?
The women typically wake up at 5 a.m. and by 5:30 a.m. they’re out of the house, walking an average of three hours a day in blisteringly hot temperatures, which forced the filmmakers to get rid of their bulky camera gear. in favor of lighter options. . This streamlined choice has proven particularly useful for covering hard-hitting news such as controversial political candidates, workers’ rights, crime and police misconduct. At one point, when they entered an illegal mine, Thomas and Ghosh were warned, “Don’t take your camera, the mafia is watching.” They mounted a phone on a stick and were able to get the footage stealthily.
The cameras capture some truly stunning moments of reporters confronting story subjects in tense and sometimes downright hostile situations, including a scene where the tenacious Meera confronts the local police department for neglecting a rape case. Despite the imminent threat of retaliation, Meera remains strong in her belief in exposing the truth. She says, “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy.” Ghosh said firmly, “They have found their way to work in a system designed to exclude them.”
Despite many truly heartbreaking moments, the women are constantly laughing and filled with joy, and the film contains many lighthearted scenes. Thomas said, “It was impossible to tell the story without their spirit and liveliness showing through on screen.” Thomas and Ghosh were dedicated to portraying a layered and nuanced view of women, rather than presenting a mere image of them as victims or icons of praise. They want people to realize that they are just normal women doing extraordinary things. Said Ghosh, “For us, Neeta, Meera and Shyamkali are really prototypes of what modern Indian women are and that’s not featured in the mainstream, so how do we find that space in our storytelling to do that? “
Ghosh said he was honored to be nominated for an Oscar, but just feels happy that write with fire will be “able to open conversations around what is happening in India, our journalists. . . and also how far independent documentaries can go. . . and the dreams we can have!
Viewers will get the chance to screen the film on March 28 on WTTW PBS, the night after the Oscars.