In 2012, when filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani to receive an Academy Award, for her documentary Saving Face, it was a win for her country. But it was a particularly meaningful triumph for the women striving for change in Pakistan. While the victory was bittersweet for Obaid-Chinoy, given that the film’s subjects were the victims of acid attacks, the global attention served a broader purpose—sparking a conversation on the emancipation of women from marginalized societies and on human rights in general.
Since then, Obaid-Chinoy has been awarded the prestigious Hilal-e-Imtiaz award by the government of Pakistan and been featured in TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list. Her most recent documentary, Songs of Lahore, premiered to rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week and celebrates a band of male musicians who want to bring their cultural music back from oblivion. In an interview with Women in the World, the director opened up about the inspiration and motivation behind her work.
Women in the World: Your movies all dig into the lives of people living on the edge in Pakistan. Why are you attracted to such material?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I am always looking to bring the stories of marginalized communities to the forefront, and feel strongly about making such narratives accessible to a larger audience. Stories that have been neglected or voices that are unable to tell their own story resonate with me.
In my career, I have focused on human rights, women’s rights and the plight of children in war-torn areas. Although the subject matter is heavy, the characters inspire me because they represent unwavering courage and determination.
Sometimes, a simple news article or short conversation with someone I don’t know is enough to inspire an idea in me. I want to tell stories from an alternative viewpoint, or question preconceived notions. For example, Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret, her 2011 film, revisits a story that has been told many times before, but I wanted to shed a new light on a community that has often been misrepresented.
WITW: How did you begin as a documentary maker?
SO: My interest in documentary filmmaking and narrative based story telling was sparked in 2011, when the tragic events of September 11th shifted the world’s focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was a print journalist at that time, and had had the privilege of growing up in Karachi, and being educated in the United States. As someone who could successfully understand both worlds, I thought that I could play a constructive role in relaying information from the East to the West.
Documentary filmmaking was an organic shift in terms of the content that I was trying to capture; film has a way of bridging differences and providing visceral accounts of situations that may seem foreign or unimaginable in print.
Shortly thereafter, I made my first film, Terror’s Children, which was about Afghan refugee children living in Karachi. That experience taught me that there is always more to the story than what makes it to the evening news, or what graces our headlines the next day, and that those stories are the ones that need to be explored in order for us to understand conflict as a social and real thing, rather than an abstract idea. This sentiment has guided my career as a filmmaker, and has established a theme of sorts; I go after stories that give a voice to those who are not usually given the opportunity to speak for themselves.
WITW: You won an Oscar for Saving Face, in which you chronicled women in Pakistan who had experienced acid violence. How did you get into this story and then get access to the people you followed?
SO: My co-director, Daniel Junge had the idea behind Saving Face after listening to renowned plastic surgeon, Dr. [Mohammad] Jawad, discuss his reconstructive work with aspiring model Katie Piper after she was attacked with acid in London. Daniel called up Dr. Jawad and asked him if he was aware of similar forms of assault in South Asia and the Muslim world, and they spoke at length about Dr. Jawad’s work with acid survivors in Pakistan. Daniel contacted me when the film was in its initial stages and invited me to collaborate with him. I was immediately drawn to the subject matter and thought that Daniel and I would work well together; shooting Saving Face was an incredible experience, and I am glad that it is being appreciated on an international level.
The biggest challenge we faced was overcoming the mindset in local communities. Acid violence is found primarily in the Seraiki belt in Punjab, a cotton-growing region where acid is found easily as it is used in the fields. The Seraiki belt has some of the lowest levels of education and highest levels of poverty in Pakistan. Partly due to these factors, we found it difficult initially—in terms of connecting with local communities and reaching out to survivors. However, once we had spent a considerable amount of time on the ground and had established relationships we did not experience any further obstacles.
WITW: Have you stayed in touch with the main women from Saving Face? If so, what kind of lives are they living now? Any measurable impact after the film?
SO: Ruksana chose to forgive her husband and continued to live with him while Zakia took the brave step of pressing charges against her husband and took the risk of moving out of his home with her daughter and son. Aided by her children, Zakia underwent treatment and fought her court case simultaneously.
I believe that Pakistan is moving towards a more progressive attitude about acid violence. We believe that it is a heinous and unjust act, and we are coming together as a society to reject such acts. A perfect example of this is the fact that now the Punjab government, which is a provincial government, now has special courts set up so as to dispense speedy justice and process cases faster. Punjab was a province where the maximum number of acid-violence cases are taking place. Acid crimes are also garnering more attention and criticism from media channels and newspapers that once would not highlight the issue at all.
WITW: Most of your films are about women. Is this a deliberate feminist statement?
SO: As a woman who has been fortunate enough to enjoy certain liberties, it alarms me that many women around the world are not even awarded basic human rights. I fear that a healthy and necessary conversation about gender will get swallowed by what is often posed as “more important and more pressing” matters. Conversations in Pakistan, whether they are occurring in the drawing room or in the parliament, are almost exclusively about the political turmoil in the country. We are a nation that is currently fighting a number of civil insurgencies, in addition to dealing with rising levels of bigotry and intolerance.
In the past, nations that have gone through similar bouts of unrest, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, have bartered the issue of women’s rights for what was posed as the greater political good. I fear that the same will happen in Pakistan.
WITW: Your new film Songs of Lahore is about men, eight Pakistani musicians whose traditional music has lost its market after Taliban repression. How did you get to this story and why did you want to tell it?
SO: I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories of our musical past. He would often talk about the orchestras that played at concerts and the musicians who played on Sunday evenings on street corners. By the time I grew up in the 1980s, all of this was a thing of the past. I lived vicariously through his stories and often wondered what it would have felt like to have been part of his generation.
In 2012, I came across the story of a group of musicians from Lahore who had come together against all odds to record music using Pakistan’s traditional instruments, and I knew that was a story I wanted to tell. At that time, I had no idea what the group’s journey would be, I just wanted to preserve their voices and their music. And what a journey it turned out to be. From Lahore to Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, these musicians found their inner calling. As our cameras filmed them performing at a sold out concert with Wynton Marsalis, I thought back to my grandfather’s stories of our past and knew that I had managed to experience some of those moments that night.
WITW: Who do you admire as a filmmaker? What are the other stories you want to tell?
SO: As a filmmaker, I admire Mira Nair. My favorite film is Monsoon Wedding. It is a beautiful story of several generations set in India. I absolutely love the way Mira has told this story of families trying to hold their ground against change. The wedding, which is at the heart of the story, provides humor but also unveils deep-seated issues that open up a window into a society at war with its culture.
Apart from documentaries, I am currently working on a fiction film for children, 3 Bahadur, which promises to be Pakistan’s first animated feature film. It is a story about three young heroes who save their town from a gang of thugs.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.