TIFF 2022: While We Watched Review
Journalistic integrity and the systematic dismantling of democracy fuel one of the most vital documentaries in recent years. At every turn of Vinay Shukla’s engrossing While We Watched, its main subject – NDTV news reporter Ravish Kumar – is blocked by a new obstacle that slowly chips away both at his mental health and the India he is so desperately trying to save. Shukla’s heartbreaking examination of democracy under fire may be set in India, but the events that unfold and tactics used to undermine dissent can be found in many other countries today.
When the political landscape is dominated by a single political view that is hostile to the opposition, it’s easy to see how fragile a country can become. While We Watched is as plain an example of the ramifications of this as one will see in a film. As NDTV struggles to maintain viewers against the overwhelming and overbearing news channels that celebrate those in power and place targets on those they see as threats, it’s clear that the India that Ravish is fighting for every day is not one that can be saved by one news station’s unwavering stance. In fact, it’s this steadfast approach to journalism that has every employee of NDTV worried about their future – including Ravish himself.
At home, Ravish seems calm and happy. The work never really came home with him before, but now that he has been labeled as an “Anti-Nationalist” simply because his views do not align with the other media pundits on TV, his life is dogged by threatening phone calls that bring fear to his family that Ravish may find himself in trouble soon if he stands his ground. Shot as if it’s a news story unfolding, Ravish’s life gets more and more hectic as the film leads up to the 2019 Indian general election, and lines are further drawn in the sand. It’s an engrossing way to frame the film that gives every beat a newfound tension that shouldn’t be possible but sadly is all too familiar.
While We Watched feels like it’s going to implode at any point. With a headstrong reporter at its center, a news channel that is being stripped down due to budget cuts and decreasing viewership, and a lack of people willing to speak out against those in power, Shukla’s film is always high-strung and blanketed in despair. Is it futile to proceed on the same course knowing that it will not get easier so long as anger and blind nationalism prevail? Can change ever happen when the only discourse that happens is quickly shut down by journalists yelling down the throats of their panelists, furthering the belief that those in power are unerring in their decisions?
The parallels drawn between what’s happening in India and other countries such as Russia and the United States are impossible to overlook. While We Watched doesn’t highlight the obvious comparisons but the way it focuses on the level-headed attempts at journalism being stopped by external pressures paints a vivid portrait of democracy under duress. Edited to keep everything at a breakneck pace and set over a small period of time, Shukla magnifies the rapid rate with which dissent and opposition can be dismantled when those in power feel threatened.
There is a multitude of factors that go into why people choose to watch one network over another or subscribe to one ideology in the face of facts. While We Watched doesn’t necessarily dive into why this occurs, it understands that it does and that just presenting the news as it is may not be enough to rebuild a country. There are so many components necessary and they all need to work together, but unfortunately, the benefits of a government maintaining control to work with news outlets that critique them are negligible in comparison to playing to your base. An infuriating watch, Shukla’s documentary gets at the heart of the media’s role in dividing a country and the ways in which audiences let it happen.