‘What happens when women reclaim the spaces that are designed to exclude them?’ Oscar-nominated filmmaker Rintu Thomas speaks to CNN

The documentary about the journalists who work at Khabar Lahariya made the rounds of the 2021 festival circuit, collecting accolades as it went. On Sunday March 27, its directors — Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh — and protagonists will find out if they get arguably the most prestigious award of them all: the Oscar for best Documentary Feature.
Khabar Lahariya describes itself as producing “grassroots, feminist and independent journalism by an all-women team of reporters from the Indian hinterland”, and the film follows three of its reporters as they document the lives of India’s rural population and speak truth to power.
On Monday, Khabar Lahariya released a statement expressing mixed feelings about the award-winning documentary of which its staff and ways of working are the subject.

It acknowledged the film as “a moving and powerful document,” but also expressed concern with its portrayal, saying, its “foundational value” is “to be deliberate about how and who we include in the frame or story … These values are not reflected in the version of ourselves we see in the film.”

CNN spoke with Rintu Thomas before the release of this statement. When we reached out for comment, Thomas shared this statement by the filmmakers: “Khabar Lahariya has a rich legacy as a grassroots media organization. Yet a film must take a focus to tell a story of one aspect or another of the whole picture. We respect that this may not be the film that they would have made about themselves but we stand by this portrayal.”

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CNN: What drew you to the story of Khabar Lahariya?

Rintu Thomas: In 2016 when we met our protagonists, we were drawn to the coming together of two unique forces: on one hand are the rural Dalit women who are chipping away at one of the cruelest systemic discriminations in the world that are created to silence them, and on the other hand is digital technology that by its very nature is unfettered.

We were most interested in exploring what happens when women reclaim the spaces that are designed to exclude them. What does the world that they reimagine look like?

“So many of us want to see social change but are we invested in the mechanics of making that change?”

Rintu Thomas

The main characters in the film — Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali — are three women with very different personalities and personal histories. They are united in their vision for a more just world through their journalism, but they approach it with their own unique lens, voice — and chutzpah!

Moreover, in our popular culture, we are not used to seeing Dalit women (whose caste is designated as “untouchable”) in positions of power, as leaders, colleagues, risk-takers and bosses. In taking an intimate, observational approach to our process of filming, we knew we had the opportunity to locate the story in this rare, dynamic space that the world has not experienced so far.

CNN: What did you learn from the women of Khabar Lahariya over the course of researching and making the documentary?

RT: I’d say my biggest learning has been to believe. So many of us want to see social change but are we invested in the mechanics of making that change?

After a whole day’s travel to reach a media dark village to report on the story of a broken hand pump that is the only source of drinking water to the entire village, it is quite possible that with this story, the Khabar Lahariya reporter is not able to move the needle with the administration.

For me, the real game-changer is that she’ll make the same journey next week to follow up on the story, to make visible an issue that has no news-value to other mainstream media outlets, to get a response from the administration. And she does this every single day of her work life — whether she sees an immediate impact or not.

That’s what investing in change looks and feels like: the belief that your voice matters, your action matters.

CNN: Why do you think the film has been so well received?

RT: A phrase that I hear a lot from people who watch the film is: “I’m inspired” and I think that’s very powerful. To me, it means that the journey of the film actually begins after the credits roll; in the thoughts and actions of the viewer.

I think when people meet Meera, Suneeta and Shyamkali, they see them as hope and courage personified. In the deeply fractured world that we all find ourselves in, their language of resilience is resonating in a unique way.

The film has played in over 120 international festivals and won 30 awards. It is extremely meaningful for Sushmit and I that a very particular story from a specific part of the world makes so many connections with audiences across the world — that they watch the film and make it their own.

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Girls arrive at their school in Kabul on March 23, 2022. (Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP/Getty Images)

Girls above 6th grade in Afghanistan have been unable to return to school for about six months now. On Wednesday, the Taliban reneged on its promise that schools would be open for all students, including girls, after the March 21 Afghan new year.

Women behaving badly: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

Members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in San Martin square, opposite Argentina's foreign ministry, in this November 21, 1977 file photo. (AP Photo)
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a protest movement started in 1977 by Argentinian women whose children were among approximately 30,000 people who were disappeared during the country’s so-called “Dirty War”.
On April 30 1977, the women gathered for the first time at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to protest the dictatorship of then President Jorge Rafael Videla (1976 to 1981), under whose leadership, it was widely reported, there were systemic disappearances and murders of Argentinians.
Azucena Villaflor, a former telephone operator and shopkeeper whose son was kidnapped urged other mothers to meet at Plaza de Mayo and has been credited for starting the peaceful resistance that became the movement.
At first the women took turns sitting in groups of twos or threes on the Plaza’s benches. When soldiers began urging them to move on, they began to walk.
Their now famous white scarves symbolized nappies once used on their lost children but were also a means of identification. to help members recognize one another. Now, they are symbols of courage and the women’s battle for justice.
In December 1977, Villaflor and 11 members and friends of the group were kidnapped and never seen again.
Forty-five years later, there have been over 2,000 marches and the Mothers still hold one every Thursday in Buenos Aires at 3:30 pm local time.

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“Women are still treated as secondary issues. It is still far too easy and accepted for leaders to ignore uncomfortable truths… Women, we know, are the first to be affected by war, and the last to be taken into account when it ends.”

Actor and activist, Angelina Jolie

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