Writing With Fire – leave your first-world whining at the door

9/10

Summary

Writing With Fire REVIEW (DocPlay)

The first Indian documentary nominated for an Oscar is a compelling exposition of journalism’s crucial role in democracy, writes GARY STEEL.

* Writing With Fire streams on DocPlay from April 4.

You know all those people who go on about how the New Zealand Government has trampled on their rights and how we’re barely a democracy and endlessly whine about this illusory thing called “freedom” while bawling out mainstream media for their “lies”?

If I could, I’d round them all up and teach them a few things about First World privilege and the responsibility that comes with freedom. And then as part of that, I’d make them watch this gritty documentary about the low-caste women who run – against all odds – a newspaper in India’s Uttar Pradesh.

 

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If necessary, I’d strap the “freedom” rabble into their chairs and if they refused to watch, use matchsticks to hold their eyelids open, just so they had to face the ridiculousness of their easy lives and the dangerous propaganda they’ve come to believe through unverified and untrustworthy social media and the “alternative facts” on illegitimate “news” websites.

All of which sounds extreme but is in fact mild when compared to the daily privations these women – and many lower caste families – endure on the margins of Indian society.

If ever there was a film to put across the importance of news journalism, this is it. The dedicated women who run this news service have themselves had lives of incredible difficulty, including daily ridicule and prejudice, spousal abuse and more. And yet here they are, risking their lives to expose dangerous illegal mining operations, confronting police who have accepted bribes to turn a blind eye to house invasions, rapes and even so-called “honour” murders.

Media, the “freedumb” camp might be surprised, isn’t just some cock sitting behind a computer making up conspiracies about world cabals and secret technologies and lies about essential vaccines. Media, in its raw state, is the only thing protecting that most fragile of concepts – democracy – from collapsing. And in Writing With Fire, the women are literally putting their lives on the line to see the truth exposed and hopefully, justice done.

It’s a shock to observe the humble lives of the women reporters and the often impoverished and immensely difficult lives of some of the people they write about. Even the staff of the newspaper live in the kind of conditions most New Zealanders couldn’t imagine.

The documentary joins them in 2016 just as they go digital and add a YouTube channel to the print version of their paper, and some of the staff haven’t ever used a mobile phone before! The women are amazing, most of them somehow managing this intense and demanding job while also maintaining some semblance of family life. The news editor came from abject poverty to somehow get her Masters in political science, and seems utterly indefatigable.

The film’s only real flaw is that it doesn’t attempt to explain how she achieved that or, indeed, where the funding for the newspaper itself comes from. That’s a shame, because it contributes to a slight feeling that they’re not telling the whole story. (In fact, if you go to Khabar Lahariya’s website you’ll see that they receive legitimate funding from an organisation whose objective is to encourage independent media).

Writing With Fire is an absolutely captivating – and often depressing – experience; inspirational one minute and horrific the next. It doesn’t seem possible that in the 21st Century there could be such prejudice within a single culture, or that a democratic society could perpetrate such injustice.

There’s one young woman, Suneeta, with genuine charisma whose YouTube presence obviously helps the publication’s figures soar between 2016 and 2019 – the period of time Writing With Fire covers. Having been an exploited worker in the mining industry as a young girl she’s determined to uncover injustice and amazingly keeps a broad smile on her face whatever kind of challenge she’s facing. But even she eventually gives in to family pressure to give up her job and get married, such is the burden of familial responsibility. (There is good news about that right at the end, but I’m no spoiler).

Despite the news service’s popularity soaring by the time it’s covering the 2019 elections, the ruling political party (the BJP) is re-elected on a dangerously nationalist, heavily religious Hindu ticket that – as the women journalists assert – appeals to the ignorant and is devised especially to divert people from the real issues, like poverty, the insane deprivations caused by the caste system, and the medieval treatment of women.

Even those who have very little interest in journalism will find Writing With Fire a compelling watch, and it’s instructive, too. Journalists in our tiny nation need to step up with the kind of courage displayed in this film, start asking the right questions of our leaders and understand just how fragile democracy is in our part of the world, too.

  • Writing With Fire streams on DocPlay from April 4.

 

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