Writing with Fire, one of the five nominations in the Best Documentary Feature category, is helmed by Indian filmmaking duo Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh. The wife-husband team followed a group of intrepid Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh who run the local media outlet Khabar Lahariya.
The other nominations are Summer of Soul directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival; Danish animated documentary Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, which follows the story of a man under the alias Amin Nawabi who shares his hidden past of fleeing his country for the first time; Attica, directed by Stanley Nelson Jr. and Traci A. Curry, set at the Attica Correctional Facility when Attica becomes the stage for one of the largest US prison riots; and Ascension, directed by Jessica Kingdon, which explores the pursuit of the Chinese Dream in modern society and presents a contemporary vision of China that prioritises productivity and innovation above other human enterprise. Because of its wide exposure and its sensitive handling of America’s historical faultiness of race and music, Summer of Soul is a frontrunner for the award. The film delves into musical styles of the moment, into the diversity of Harlem itself, and the melting pot aesthetics that have emerged in its musical history.
But a win for Writing with Fire will be historic because it is the only film which is truly an independent project, without the backing of any big studio or OTT platform, and it presents an uplifting story about how women on the margins of the social hierarchy are creating history when it comes to freedom of speech and dissemination of information.
Recently, Khabar Lahariya released a statement that said that “a particular and consuming focus of reporting on one party”. The documentary is “a story which captures a part of ours, and part stories have a way of distorting the whole sometimes”, the statement said. Going by the trailer and published reports and reviews, some sequences show the Khabar Lahariya reporters against the backdrop of hardline Hindutva politics and the social polarisation in Uttar Pradesh. Several attempts to reach the filmmakers were unsuccessful, and there has been no organised screening of the film in India so far. When we got through to Tajdar Junaid, the film’s music composer, Thomas and Ghosh were already in Los Angeles, promoting the film leading up to the ceremony. Junaid, who composed a score combining sounds of nylon string guitar, the ronroco, percussion instruments and the violin, said that he was not aware if the film would be screened in India soon or if it will be released on any OTT platform. “For me, it was a very inspiring project. Through the music, I wanted to capture the steeliness of the Dalit women for whom every step of news gathering is a struggle beyond the struggle of living as Dalit women in UP,” Junaid said.
In keeping with the Academy’s emphasis on diverse representation and political views, Writing with Fire is a triumphant choice, and if Thomas and Ghosh win on Sunday night at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre, it will be India’s first ever win for a documentary feature.