In 2015, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani filmmaker to win two Academy Awards with her documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which exposes the practice of honour killings in Pakistan. Her first was awarded in 2012 for Saving Face, a documentary which followed the victims of acid attacks. Born and raised in Karachi, Sharmeen moved to the United States for higher education at Smith College and then postgraduate study at Stanford.
Sharmeen’s films often focus on pressing social issues. However, despite being involved with investigative journalism from the age of 17, she remains committed to working on the most troubling issues facing society. “I’m motivated by trying to affect some sort of dialogue around the work that I do. I want there to be some form of conversation around it. I want people to think about policy change, I want people to re-examine that issue with a fresh lens. That’s what keeps me going.”
Pakistan is an unsafe country for journalists, particularly those who tackle such pernicious issues. In 2014 alone, fourteen journalists were killed. Sharmeen remains undeterred: “I’m a fatalist sort of person. I very much believe that when my time will come, my time will come. When you want to push change, and when you want to push the envelope – there will always be a price to pay. And that’s not just in Pakistan, that’s in any country– in any country that is going through a turbulent period.”
“I choose to live and work in Pakistan and believe very strongly that it is the country where I can have the maximum impact. But it’s also the country where I hope there will be the most change in the coming years. And so, if you were to ask me, ‘Do I think about my security every day?’, I would say no. If you ask me, ‘Am I concerned about it?’, there are times that I am concerned about it. But then I think about all of those people, in all those countries, that have sparked difficult conversations, and the paths they have forged and walked on. I am proud to be walking along the same paths they have.”
In terms of gender equality, Pakistan represents somewhat of a paradox. Despite being the first Islamic nation to democratically elect a female head of state, many women – as Sharmeen’s films show – are still perceived as inferior. Highlighting the injustice of this dichotomy is a fundamental aspect of Sharmeen’s work.
“Pakistan creates women like myself, but also creates the women that are in my films. And that’s what makes me very angry. The country has the potential of giving so much back to its women, and yet there is a part of the country that suppresses women. But I know the sky is the limit. We have judges, doctors, lawyers, heads of state that have been women in the past. I know that the potential exists. I hope that the women that have the potential help amplify the voices of women that don’t. The thing that separates women like me from those that are downtrodden, who are persecuted, or those who are on the receiving end of violence, is opportunity. It is simply opportunity. We had an opportunity to get an education, we had an opportunity to work. And here we are.”
One scene in Saving Face emphatically articulates this polarity. In it, a group of acid attack victims are in conversation with Marvi Mermon, a female Pakistani MP. Adorning bandages and eye patches to conceal their scars, the victims describe how their husbands attacked them, and then used loopholes in the legal system – as well as money – to evade imprisonment. On one side of the table, they plea with Mermon on the other: “My only request is that you do something for helpless women like us.” The two sides of the table perfectly encapsulate the difference between the women with and without opportunity Sharmeen describes.
Sharmeen’s global success has spawned renewed interest in film in Pakistan. “We have a nascent film industry in Pakistan. It is just starting to stand on its own feet. We have some wonderful new film makers that are pushing the envelope, that are new and exciting and that are touching on issues that are critical to society. But it’s a young film industry and it is going to take a bit of time for the film industry to blossom. It’s something that I feel is going to happen. The world of digital cinema has changed access for film makers. We no longer have to rely on film and on purchasing film which is very prohibitive in terms of cost. Now, the level of entry is much lower.”
In numerous interviews since her Oscar successes, Sharmeen has described herself as a ‘story-teller’. This ‘story-telling’ has spanned many genres; from the documentaries that brought her fame, to 3 Bahadur, a computer animated children’s film produced in Pakistan. Reflecting on her work, however, she argues that the content dictates the medium: “As a story teller, you should figure out what story you want to tell and then think about what the audience’s reaction is going to be. Tailoring films to an audience is not the best way to go about things. I make my films by thinking about what I would want to watch, what I think would resonate with an audience, what I think will move an audience and then start working on it, fashioning the story around that. There are plenty of issues that still make me angry, still inspire me. And those are the films that I am choosing to make more and more now.”
Her most recent film (released in the US last month and Britain later this year) is Song of Lahore. It tells the story of a “group of jazz musicians that are trying to reclaim Pakistan’s rich musical heritage. It shows that what happens to society when culture and heritage are taken away and how these group of musicians became an unlikely hit.”
The film highlights the deeply connected worlds of Pakistani culture and politics. Sharmeen keenly stressed the importance of the relationship in Pakistan: “Music and culture are deeply political. I think any country can be judged by how it has preserved its own past, and how it has tried to re-write its past. Pakistan has had a troubled history, where subsequent governments have tried to erase rich history as well as art and culture. I think finally there is a generation that has grown up in that country and is wanting to bring about change, and reclaim that past.”
Sharmeen’s most successful films have been in issues that effect women, and it is in this arena that she harbours an invested interest. Interestingly, she sees the biggest obstacle to gender equality in Pakistan as being the same across the world. “The biggest obstacle to gender equality is patriarchy. There are people within the system who wish to hold on to the old status quo – and that is no longer possible to do in 2016. In communities where men have allowed women space, have encouraged them to get an education, encouraged them to work, those are the communities that have lower levels of violence, that thrive more, that have economic stability, and households that are more stable.”
When Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy addresses an audience, she commands attention. This arresting quality translates seamlessly into her films, and is what makes them so powerful. Her films have been met by positive reception among Pakistani politicians, real social and legislative change. It is an effect that looks set to continue.