By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter
Writing with Fire is a documentary that demonstrates the power of words and women. In this case, the Dalit women, or women from the lowest caste in India, challenge centuries-old traditions with their fiery spirit and words as they plunge into surfing the Internet. It’s an inspirational and heartbreaking story told by a husband-and-wife team in their first feature-length documentary. On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announcement included Writing with Fire on its Oscar Best Documentary shortlist.
For Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, the pandemic helped them decide it was time to edit four years’ worth of video. Huddling down for a year of shaping and cutting away their little “darlings,” they were rewarded when their debut feature documentary, Writing with Fire, was accepted to the Sundance Film Festival, where I saw it. Due to the pandemic, the documentary was screened to a wider audience than usual with the virtual festival allowing for people viewing from their homes internationally.
In a Zoom interview, Thomas quickly established herself as the spokesperson of the two co-directors. Thomas explained how their partnership began, “We went to the same film school about 2006. We became good friends and ended up working together. Sushmit had already made a documentary before going to school.”
Their first film together was a short about a photographer who was gay and HIV positive and “uses his body to challenge the notions of shame.” Thomas wondered aloud, “Why he would trust two school kids.” Yet that film cemented their partnership and the short went on to win awards at festivals and helped start conversations. Thomas characterized her family as “a very traditional orthodox Christian family,” but after seeing the short at a festival, her father said, “These people have the right to live, too, to be happy, too.”
According to Ghosh, that film made them realize the power of non-fiction and the importance of telling the story of people who are marginalized from their society. In 2009, they founded Black Ticket Films, a production company that focuses on non-fiction stories about social justice. Black Ticket Films’ pieces are used as advocacy, impact, and education tools by institutions across the world. Rintu and Sushmit are also Sundance Fellows, and, in 2012, were awarded the President’s Medal, the highest honor given to filmmakers in India.
In Writing with Fire, Thomas and Ghosh looked at women who had been fighting for over a decade after discovering them online. When Thomas and Ghosh began filming, the newspaper had already been in existence for 14 years, but they were at a moment of change: Going digital.
Ghosh noted that the caste system is thousands of years old and comes from Hindu scripture. Thomas, coming from a Christian family, is not under this system. For Ghosh, he grew up in a liberal family not thinking of the caste system he was born into and that, he admits, is a sign of his privilege. “Typically,” he explained, “it (the caste system) is an occupational hierarchy.”
Yet, with India’s independence, the constitution banned the practice of the caste system. Yet it’s hard to put aside thousands of years of history and culturally ingrained practices and prejudices. In their documentary, it’s not the newspaper itself that is interesting, but the dynamics of the people involved.
At the beginning, the couple had to “negotiate trust.” There was also clear conflict within the journalists, between those who fully embraced the new technology and those who were leery of it. Eventually, Ghosh and Thomas found the people they wanted to follow: Meera Devi, Suneeta Prajapati, and Shyamkali Devi.
Because the schedule of a news journalist can be crazy, Thomas and Ghosh and their camera person, Karan Thapliyal (Ghosh is also credited as cinematographer) often worked in separate teams.
Ghosh said, “Once we hit the ground filming and following three characters, we would go our separate ways and get together in the evening and share notes.”
Overall though, Ghosh noted that Thomas was more detail-oriented, taking charge of communication and planning out the day.
“I like getting into the finer details,” Thomas explained. “We’ve been married six years. We’ve known each other for a really long time–personally and professionally. And we know each other’s trigger points.”
Ghosh remains aware of the larger picture, looking at the long-term commitments and possibilities.
From the beginning, their team dreamed big: Sundance Film Festival. They had to explain to their subjects what Sundance was. After four years of filming, they both had their little “darlings,” moments that they loved, but they were also determined to whittle the footage down to 90 minutes.
Thomas said, “We fought until the very end.” Some of the darlings the audience won’t see are about “the character who took the longest to warm up to technology” because there were so many beautiful scenes with her.
When the fighting was over, they were down to about two hours before they brought in an objective eye: Anne Fabini. Born in Romania, Fabini was the winner of the 2019 Film Award for Best Editing (for Kinder des Kalifats or Of Fathers and Sons).
Ghosh said, “She had a very strong sense of storytelling and working with subtitles is always a challenge. She really worked with us and helped us come to a 90-minute version that we were happy with.”
And when they got the call that their documentary was in this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it was so beautiful and very emotional.
This documentary “shows Dalit women for what they are, not as victims,” Thomas proudly noted. After watching the documentary as part of my virtual attendance of Sundance in January, it was hard not to be inspired by the fiery Meera Devi.
Writing with Fire has won several festival awards, including the World Cinema – Documentary Audience Award and the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact and Change at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Special Jury Prize at Telluride for Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Justice Matters Award at the Washington DC Film Festival.
Writing with Fire was given a limited release on 26 November 2021. In Hindi with English subtitles. Writing with Fire was one of 15 films chosen by the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences voting to advance from a pool of 138. Final Academy Award nominations for Best Documentary Feature will be announced on 8 February 2022. The documentary premieres on PBS on 28 March 2022 (Independent Lens).
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