SUNDANCE LONDON ’21: ‘Writing with Fire’ Shines a Light on Everyday Heroines

A group of people sit in a room, two on a bed in the background. One woman sits in the foreground holding a phone landscape, filming another woman who sits in front of her, facing away from the camera and at the women conducting an interview.
A still from Writing With Fire by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Gosh, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Black Ticket Films.

Journalism is an ever-evolving discipline, print is dying and the next generation of media platforms are driving writers to report the news in innovative ways. It’s a terrifying transition from keyboards and copy-edits to cameras and editing footage, and in Writing with Fire, this move to digital is intensified by the red-hot political climate of India. 

Following newspaper Khabar Lahariya (translation: “Waves of News”) as they shift to online reporting, this publication is all-the-more daring because of its staff of Dalit women. Underestimated because of their gender and their class, with the outdated caste system dubbing them as ‘untouchables’, these investigators face more barriers than most, with a steely imperviousness that is awe-inspiring to watch. 

Writing with Fire showcases the adaptability which has kept this institution going since 2002. Spotlighting Meera, the chief reporter, and her protegées, we follow her team of journalists as she trains them to film on smartphones, with varying degrees of success. Their personal lives intermingle with professional, as we see their approaches to motherhood and their disapproving families, including Meera’s husband, who openly admits that he doesn’t think their work can last. 

Discrimination aside, these reporters face up to dangerous situations on the daily, from Meera’s repeated confrontations of police officers who ignore rape cases to Suneeta’s newsbeat of exposing the running illegal mines. Their confidence makes for a contrast with the shy Shyamkali, who has placed her reputation on the line to work for the paper, but having never used a smartphone before, struggles at first to meet her deadlines. 

In focusing on these three women, a film that is otherwise a little haphazard is easier to follow, and with around 40 women on staff, emphasises how each has their own revolutionary stories. Journalism is not just a career but an admirable pursuit of justice, holding a corrupt government to account. Unlike a more #girlboss narrative, that would only show the highs of this journey, the filmmakers are unafraid to remind viewers how these women are still constrained by societal expectations, but perhaps could do more to highlight the failures of the newspaper as well as its successes. 

From its strictly observational approach, it doesn’t necessarily probe the discomfort of some of these interviews, the way trauma is re-lived by those telling their stories, or ease in viewers who may struggle with triggering content. More technical aspects, like the soundtrack and the filmmaking itself are less memorable, with dizzying exposition that could benefit with more explanation for viewers unfamiliar with Indian politics or society. However, the forceful personalities of these women anchor this shaky foundation with their passion. 

Relatable for journalists and inspirational for us all, it is a reminder of the potential we have for accountability that comes with the devices we’ve assimilated into our lives, and of the perennial yet powerful ability of women to rise up and fight when society tells them to be quiet. Winning the Sundance Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary film, Writing with Fire is clearly a crowd-pleaser, with an empowering story everyone can learn from. 

Writing with Fire will be shown as part of the Sundance London program from the 30th July – 1st August, with screenings in independent cinemas across the UK.

Fatima (she/her) is a biomedical sciences graduate and aspiring science communicator. Literary adaptations with beautiful soundtracks call to her, but she enjoys anything with an original concept, witty writing, diverse casting or even the briefest appearance of Dan Stevens. Her favourite films do fluctuate but her love for Paddington 2 is perennial. She can be found on Letterboxd @sherifff and on Twitter here.

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