Film on oppressed journalists gets Oscar nod

The pioneering team at an all-women, rural news organisation in northern India say they are ecstatic after a documentary film on their crusading reporting, especially around the hardships faced by lower caste communities, won an Oscar nomination last week.

Writing with Fire, a 93-minute film about the women behind the online news outlet Khabar Lahariya - meaning News Waves in Hindi - was nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category for this year's Academy Awards.

"I am so happy. But I can't express it well," said Ms Meera, a reporter with Khabar Lahariya.

She features prominently in the documentary, wading through fields, hitching a bike ride along potholed roads and recording smartphone videos of villagers as they narrate their issues.

Started by a group of women 20 years ago, Khabar Lahariya focuses on women's and local issues in rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, a land where caste faultlines are sharply drawn and violence against lower castes is common.

"We are proud that 20 years of our rural reporting and hard work is being appreciated and loved by a global audience, encouraging us to further our women-led grassroots media revolution," said Ms Kavita, one of the co-founders of the organisation.

Khabar Lahariya operates out of a farmhouse and trains local women to use phones and conduct interviews.

The trailer of the film, directed by Ms Rintu Thomas and Mr Sushmit Ghosh, shows them as they travel on foot and in crowded buses and learn how to use a mobile phone.

The narrative traces the journey of the newspaper from the print to the digital medium, with the women leading it becoming daring smartphone journalists. Supported by the Sundance Institute, the documentary was shot over five years, following the paths of the newspaper's chief reporter and the crime reporter as they negotiate what can at times be a difficult and dangerous world for women like them.

The journalists Meera, Suneeta, Shyamkali and Kavita shown in the film have all experienced violence and systemic exclusion because they hail from the lower caste Dalit community.

For their whole life, they have grappled with discrimination along the lines of class, gender, geography and caste.

They often choose not to use their last names, which are direct markers of caste in Indian communities.

Most of the paper's journalists were forced to drop out of school early, and several scenes show them struggling to use smartphones.

News of the Oscar nomination drew praise from some in Bollywood, India's popular Hindi language film industry.

"This feels like a personal victory. Congratulations my fellow Indians! You have made us all a little emotional today," actress Parineeti Chopra said on Twitter.

Writing With Fire, which has been hailed by The Washington Post as the "most inspiring journalism movie" and The New York Times as "nothing short of galvanising" is the first Indian documentary feature to get an Oscar nomination.

The San Francisco Chronicle said: "Even (Bob) Woodward and (Carl) Bernstein would be inspired by the women reporters of India's Writing with Fire."

The two American Washington Post journalists blew the lid off the Watergate scandal in the 1970s which led to the resignation of United States President Richard Nixon.

Writing With Fire has already won several awards on the festival circuit including two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. The Academy Awards will be announced on March 27 in a televised ceremony.

Reuters, Indo-Asian News Service

"We are proud that 20 years of our rural reporting and hard work is being appreciated and loved by a global audience, encouraging us to further our women-led grassroots media revolution." - Ms Kavita, one of the co-founders of the organisation


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