Collective earned an Oscar nomination last year for documenting the work of brave investigative reporters in Romania. This year, one of the feature documentaries in contention for Oscar recognition focuses on another group of crusading journalists — the staff of Khabar Lahariya, India’s only newspaper run entirely by women.
Writing With Fire, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, explores the enormous obstacles Khabar Lahariya has faced to stay in business and hold the powerful accountable. The staff of women faces constant sexism, from officials and ordinary people they interview, and in many cases, from within their own families.
Khabar Lahariya was founded by Dalit women, members of the lowest caste within India – another reason the odds were stacked against the newspaper. But as the film notes, the women did not give up – “Instead, they stirred a revolution.”
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In a statement provided exclusively to Deadline, the directors explained the origins of their documentary.
“Writing With Fire began with a simple photo that we saw online of a Dalit woman reporter from Khabar Lahariya in a sea of male onlookers,” Thomas and Ghosh say. “It was a powerful image that led to us asking ourselves: What is journalism? Who counts as newsworthy? Which stories should we be telling?”
Khabar Lahariya, a term that means “waves of news,” was founded in 2002. Thomas and Ghosh started filming at a challenging moment in the newspaper’s history, when it was transitioning from print to a digital presence. That involved a steep learning curve for many of the staff.
“The very first footage [in the documentary] we shot was in the attic of a small office in rural India where women from the most marginalized community were scripting a new course for the newspaper they run,” the directors explain. “Most women in the room had never touched a smartphone, but they had the gumption to dream of making their newspaper a digital force.”
In just a few years, KL’s YouTube site went from zero views to more than 150 million. Writing With Fire demonstrates the real-world impact of the news operation’s reporting – goading police to investigate crimes, motivating government officials to follow through on promised improvements for poor communities.
“The film shows the power and importance of journalism as a fourth pillar of democracy,” Thomas and Ghosh note. “Thanks to digital media, the KL [team] manage to bring real awareness to issues in some of the most underrepresented communities in the world, provoking conversation and delivering positive change.”
Writing With Fire has been nominated for a Producers Guild Award, and it has won numerous prizes around the world, including Best Documentary Feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival, DocsMX in Mexico City, Nordic Docs, and a special jury prize at the Seattle International Film Festival. It won the audience at both the IDFA festival in Amsterdam and at Sundance last year. In Park City it also won a special jury award for Impact and Change.
“The journey of Writing With Fire, from its Sundance premiere last where it had a double award win to being on the Academy Shortlist, has also been history in the making as India’s first ever documentary feature to achieve this,” the filmmakers tell Deadline. “The film has played at over 100 festivals and won 28 awards, which tells us that audiences across the world love and feel inspired by the women they meet in the film. Writing With Fire is a story of our fractured times, it is as unique as it is universal.”
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