Onscreen empathy

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary films spark conversation — and legislative change

‘I am a filmmaker because I am an activist,’ she said at the Women in the World Canada Summit

She’s won two Academy Awards and six Emmy Awards, but Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy doesn’t make her powerful documentaries for all the glitzy hardware.

“I am a filmmaker because I am an activist,” the Canadian-Pakistani filmmaker, who said she makes films primarily because she wants to get people angry about issues, told the audience at the second annual Women in the World Canada Summit on Monday. “I want to push the needle and I want to make people deeply uncomfortable about who they are and why they allow this to happen on their watch.”

During a conversation with David Walmsley, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, Obaid-Chinoy discussed tackling tough topics in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. Her documentaries challenge social norms — from acid violence to honor killings — and put human faces to difficult topics.

“I’ve always thought that film is a very powerful medium,” she said. “It allows people to have empathy, to see a reflection of themselves in the people that they’re watching onscreen. Because the world is too much of us and them, and I feel that film allows people to walk in other people’s shoes.”

Being a storyteller for the voiceless and the force that kickstarts change, the documentarian has seen the power in her own work and the impact it’s had not only on the communities she’s covered and the topics she’s shed light on, but in the way that people have been forced to change legislation.

Before her film A Girl in the River was released, the law in Pakistan was such that if a father killed his daughter, or if a brother killed a sister, other family members could forgive them. The film was a lightning rod. It recounted the story of a brave 17-year-old who fell in love, got married — and whose father responded by shooting her and throwing her in the river. Miraculously, she survived. The doctor she ended up receiving treatment from was a self-proclaimed feminist and helped her find a lawyer to fight her case.

The country’s prime minister held a screening of the film, and Obaid-Chinoy used that opportunity — and the buzz surrounding her Oscar nomination — to push for legislation that had been stalled. When the film aired and the Academy Award was won, the prime minister closed the loophole in the law that allowed family members to forgive honor killings, said Obaid-Chinoy, highlighting the true power of a medium she has harnessed so well.

Watch the entire conversation about the capacity for film to enlighten and embolden communities around the world above.

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‘They believe as they’ve colonized the lands in this territory they’ve also colonized our bodies’

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