At Oscar time, our attention drifts to top names – Spielberg and Kidman and Denzel and such.
But maybe we’ll also notice Meera Devi and Suneeta Prajapati and others. They’re at the core of “Writing with Fire” (shown here) which is up for an Oscar (best documentary feature) on Sunday, March 27, then reaches PBS’ “Independent Lens” at 10 p.m. the next day.
“The extremely brave actions of these young women is amazing,” Lois Vossen, who started “Lens” 23 years ago, said by phone. “I don’t know whether I would have the guts to do what they do.”
They report for a print-and-online news agency in rural India. They are women from the Dalit caste (previously called “untouchables”), confronting people who distrust women and Dalit and maybe the news in general.
That gives “Fire” extra meaning, Vossen said. “It gets to the idea of what is truth and how important is it.” And it reflects the constant push of documentaries, with or without an Oscar spotlight.
For filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, this has been a marathon. They expected “Writing with Fire” to take a year or two, they told one interviewer; instead, it took five.
For Vossen, it’s part of a perpetual process. Each year, her unit has 22 films on “Lens,” plus a few in other public-TV spots and occasional series, most recently “Philly DA.”
The Oscars sometimes offer a spotlight; this is the seventh nomination for a “Lens” film in the past decade. Then life returns to normal; on May 2, for instance, “Lens” has the compelling “Try Harder,” which visits a high school where students obsess on a few elite colleges. Filmmaker Debbie Lum told the Television Critics Association that her film views the “psychological impacts of trying to get in, knowing that you’re going to fail.”
For each of these – “Fire” or “Try Harder” or 20 others this year — patience was crucial.
A few films – maybe one-fifth of them – are bought after they’re already finished and even making the film-festival circuit. For most, however, “Lens” is there from the start as an investor and producer.
Some fall together quickly. “Detropia,” an eloquent look at Detroit crumbling and coming back, was finished in a year. It won awards at a half-dozen festivals and from the National Board of Review.
Many others, Vossen said, take four or five years … or more. “’I Am Not Your Negro” took eight, deftly turning an unfinished James Baldwin book into an Oscar nominee.
Documentaries still have one thing in common, Vossen said. “The vast majority don’t make a profit.”
But they do have a stronger shot at breaking even, with more cable channels and streamers jumping in. Filmmakers have more logistical help. “Some of them have agents – how crazy is that?”
Still, she said, it remains a field propelled by idealism and truth-seeking. That’s what impressed her about Thomas and Rintu. “They’re so enthusiastic and passionate about their work.”
They had done three documentary shorts, but this was their first feature-length project. The result did well at film festivals, including an audience award at Sundance. Then came the Oscars.
“It was very much a grassroots effort,” Vossen said, “writing to fellow members, asking them to please watch our film.”
They did, apparently. Now “Writing with Fire” has its Oscar-nominee moment one night and its TV debut the next.