17 Mar PEOPLE POWER
Photo: Rintu Thomas (center) and her co-director and husband Sushmit Ghosh (behind) react to hearing their film Writing With Fire is nominated for Best Documentary by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first film from India to be so honored.
This interview is part of our series “On the Horizon: Outspoken Women Making Documentaries,” interviews with emerging filmmakers, and artists focused on collaborative, ethical storytelling with historically disenfranchised communities around the world. Read more in the series here.
I met Rintu Thomas while working together preparing for the Human Rights Film Festival and Forum (FIFDH) which took place in Geneva this March, and where Rintu and Sushmit Ghosh, the Co-Directors of the Sundance-winning, Oscar-nominated film, Writing with Fire, were pitching their impact campaign for prospective funders and partners. The film centers around the story of a rural Indian digital news platform, Kabar Lahiriya (Waves of News) and follows Dahlit women journalists reporting under repressive conditions and by doing so contribute to preserving democracy and civic space. Since Paco de Onís, my husband, and I are partners in life as well as film I was curious about how Rintu and Sushmit were managing as well as conducting their Oscar campaign. The Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, March 27th.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Pamela Yates: You and Sushmit Ghosh are the co-directors of Writing with Fire, partners in life as well as in cinema. With Paco and me, I sometimes describe our working together as “heaven and hell,” though mostly heaven. You’ve said that you and Sushmit have “fireworks.” How did you two meet and begin your creative collaboration?
Rintu Thomas: I think the beginning was important. We were friends first, we met in film school in 2009 and we talked a lot about the kind of films we loved and didn’t love. Our interests are so very different. Sushmit got exposed at an early age to World Cinema by his father and I’d never watched a documentary before I went to film school. I had grown up on a healthy dose of Hindi and Mayayalam Cinema. We made a film together called Flying Inside My Body, which is about a gay photographer who’s also HIV positive and how he uses the nude form of his body to challenge stereotypes around gender and sexuality. We each looked out of the window, saw different things, yet created the film together. It’s not always true that great friends can be great collaborators. What you want to do with the story–it’s so intuitive, it’s so nonverbal. Because we’re such different people it’s also a huge fireworks, especially in the edit! We don’t necessarily agree.
Pamela: Did being a couple help you understand how to tell the stories with the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya in your film? Did it help you earn their trust? Did it help you understand their relationship to their partners and families?
Rintu: Meera [Devi], (the Bureau Chief of Kahbar Lahariya), told me that being an interfaith couple – I’m Christian and Sushmit is Hindi – was very important for them. Because they knew we would be open to other peoples’ experiences and open as people. Our relationship had a role to play. India is still a country where your parents arrange your marriage, your wedding and you’re groomed all your life to believe that you need to find a person from your own community. Although, it’s changing dramatically in the country and younger people are making their own personal choices.
Pamela: What are your different strengths? How do you negotiate the personal as well as artistic/work spaces?
Rintu: When we fell in love with each other and decided to get married, one of the things we decided was we will leave work out of the house. The moment we walk into the house, we will not discuss work. That rule lasted for maybe two days. You end up spending so much time together. When stuff is not going right, can we sit down across the table as friends and say, “This didn’t work out” or,”You’re not seeing my vision.” Or “I will do this differently.”
We co-direct. Sushmit is the cinematographer and occasionally I’ll do sound as well. Everything that you do professionally, I believe comes from a space of what you had to deal with in your personal space. I’ve dealt with a lot of self-doubt and lack of confidence. I’m so grateful to have met Sushmit because he’s moved fear of failure out of my system. I met the right person and he activated a chemical reaction. Our collaboration has had an impact – this would have been a different film if I had made it on my own.
Pamela: Qué romántico! You two are first time feature length documentary filmmakers from India, and you ran a grassroots Oscar campaign making it to the final five films nominated. The video you posted of you hearing the Academy announce that you were nominated is the best ever! How did you pull off this campaign?
Rintu: Right? Right! It starts off with having a powerful film that resonates with people and we got a lot of love. We thought we’d done our job just by making the film. After our wins at Sundance, especially the Audience Award which is the litmus test for distributors. Three months later, no distribution deals, no studio. But we kept showing the film at what’s now 120 festivals and doing the Q&As, really putting the film out into the world. And something was really resonating here.
We had no experience so we just started speaking to recommended filmmakers who had done this grassroots kind of campaigning. And there was not a single filmmaker who did not come back and say, “Sure, let’s talk. What do you need? Here’s what worked for me, and what didn’t work.” It was a group of people who said, “I love this film and you’re doing the campaign with practically no money. I would like to support it because I believe in what you’re doing.” It’s like running a marathon.
This family of believers grew, and the Documentary Branch [of the Academy] has been expanding to include people outside of the US. They now see people like me with accents like mine and understand it’s hard to do this work alone. The diversification of the Documentary Branch had a huge role in this. We knew that the system was not in our favor. So how are you going to do it? People power! Really bright people.