Vinay Shukla’s documentary portrait of a broadcast journalist in India fighting a lonely fight against nationalism and disinformation is riveting and inspiring.
Vinay Shukla’s documentary While We Watched adopts a straightforward but effective formula to paint a portrait of both its subject and the enemy it is fighting against. --Cineuropa
A riveting work that will have you mourning the slow death of journalism, While We Watched is an urgent reminder that we all have much to lose if we can no longer tell fact from fiction. --That Shelf
While We Watched smartly captures the state of contemporary news media with a powerful character study of one reporter’s unshakable quest to speak the truth. --POV Magazine
Premiering at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Vinay Shukla’s documentary While We Watched adopts a straightforward but effective formula to paint a portrait of both its subject and the enemy it is fighting against. The former is Hindi-language broadcast journalist Ravish Kumar; the latter is the mainstream Indian news media, in coalition with nationalist politicians in power. In some ways, the film is constructed as a thriller, with Kumar framed as a lone force against this dangerous status quo: close-ups on the man deep in thought, excerpts from his stern but bravely critical TV appearances as news anchor on TV channel NDTV, and scenes from his daily family life emphasise the personal nature of his mission and draw a clear line between his work and his very being. For Kumar, what he does at NDTV is much more than a job.
A dramatic score emphasises just how important this work is, to others but mostly to him; one of the key aspectsWhile We Watchedbrings to light is the disconnect between the people who make television, and those who watch it, and while Kumar does have supporters and fans he rarely gets to see them. This gulf between reality and television is inherent to the medium, and egregiously exploited by other news channels seen in the film: obsessed with the concept of nationalism, these anchors and hosts are most concerned with debating whether this or that person is a nationalist or anti-patriotic, sending viewers into a panic about who among them might be an “enemy” of India. By contrast, Kumar actively tries to close the dangerous gap between television and reality — a gap where dangerous ideas can fester — by bringing his cameras closer to the people, using TV as a tool to give viewers a voice and to report on the real problems that actually affect them on a day to day basis. Nationalism, according to Kumar, is a tool used by the government and wielded by other news channels to divide the population and to distract them from the real problems they face, therefore stopping them from opposing the government (anyone who does is deemed unpatriotic) and from getting organised to fight for their rights. This, of course, makes him an enemy of those in power and of the news channels that constantly praise them.
The film is also careful, however, to show that while Kumar is the public face of the channel and of this fight against disinformation, he could never do all this on his own. Attention is paid to the people on his team who help him shape and deliver the news every day, in meetings ahead of the news, but also live while Kumar is on set. These colleagues are our first sign that Kumar isn’t alone in opposing the agenda of other TV channels as well as the extremely impassioned style of their news anchors, screaming with rage while they talk about supposedly unpatriotic people. Most of Kumar’s colleagues are younger than him, which is another sign of how progressive his ideas are, and they look up to him.
But a recurring motif throughout the film are scenes showing the staff cutting cake after cake during farewell parties thrown for colleagues who have decided to leave the channel. Unfolding in the run-up to the 2019 General Election in India, the film shows a particularly intense time at NDTV: with the channel losing funding from a hostile government, unable to get loans from banks, and threatened on all sides, many people eventually decide to leave for better salaries or simply to escape the threats of violence they are regularly objected to. NDTV’s size visibly dwindles across the film’s runtime, with Kumar the captain on an apparently sinking ship.
It is only in scenes where Kumar talks to his wife that he admits feeling despondent and wonders if he should quit. But winning a prestigious journalism prize (with Kumar not missing this opportunity to criticise some of his colleagues present), encountering everyday people who are grateful for his interest, and a colleague’s admission that he turned down a better paying job to stay at NDTV, remind the news anchor of the value of his work, and it is inspiring to watch him fight on and on no matter what.
Kumar is an affable personality, who takes his job seriously but also has a great sense of humour: when strangers incessantly call him on his cell-phone after his phone number leaks on Facebook, he casually drowns out their threats by singing to them; insulted by passersby in the street, he smiles and wishes them a good day.While We Watchedis a vivid portrait of a man who reminds us that knowing you are doing the right thing is its own reward.
While We Watched was produced by the UK’s LONO Studio and BritDoc. International sales are handled by MetFilm Sales.