Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a filmmaker, women’s rights activists, and the first Pakistani to win an Oscar or her 2012 documentary Saving Face. We spoke to her about growing up in Karachi, undercover journalism, and socially conscious filmmaking.
NeueJournal: How did you become a documentarian? Was this a calling or something that just happened?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I started writing for local papers and publications in Karachi at the age of fourteen, and pursued print journalism while I was in college in the United States. My decision to pursue documentary filmmaking was motivated by the aftermath of September 11th 2011, when the world’s focus shifted to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I realized that I had a unique vantage point as a native Pakistani who had spent a considerable time in the US; I hoped that I would be able to successfully tell stories from the East to audiences in the West. Soon thereafter, I made my first film, ‘Terror’s Children’, which was about Afghan refugee children who had fled the war and were eking out a living on the streets of Karachi. I felt an instant connection to the medium, and haven’t looked back since!
The media in Pakistan has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade; our film industry is growing, our TV channels are maturing and we continue to produce exceptional writers. However, the industry continues to be primarily male dominated, with women relegated to specific roles within companies and production houses. Women who have already established themselves need to ensure that others feel included and safe in the space, and I try to play my part in ensuring that we continue to work towards that goal.
NJ: It’s clear that the motivation of your work is to compel social justice. What inspired this approach?
SOC: When I was 17, I went undercover and wrote a newspaper article about the children of feudal lords that used ammunition to terrorize fellow students. The morning after the article appeared, my name was spray painted with profanities across several neighborhoods and I felt that my career as a journalist would be over that day.
NJ: What has been the most inspiring result of your work? Can you share an anecdote related to this?
SOC: The most gratifying moments for me as a filmmaker are when my films achieve tangible change. I made a film two years ago about the efforts of a young educationalist, Humaira Bachal who ran a make shift school out of a rented room in an urban slum in Karachi. She was eager to open a state of the art facility but didn’t have the funds to pursue the project. We successfully used the film as part of Gucci’s Chime for Change effort to raise money to build Humaira’s school. The three-story school provides high quality education to thousands of children every year.
NJ: The subjects of your films often face insurmountable odds. Do you use film as a tool to overcome any adversity you’ve faced personally?
Growing up in Pakistan certainly made me a strong, opinionated woman. I was always encouraged to speak my mind even when it made others uncomfortable.
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 want my films to serve as vessels of information that connect audiences, prompt dialogue, and initiate social change. I view my films as active stories that come to life when they are viewed and discussed – the film is oftentimes just the first step in a much larger, and often fruitful, conversation.
NJ: How do you create a separation between your life and that of your subjects? Do you ever find that you can’t separate the two?
SOC: There have been many times during the course of shooting when I have felt emotionally overwhelmed and it has been difficult to separate my work and personal life. When you spend countless hours with subjects literally living with them, sometimes their nightmares become yours. I maintain relationships with a number of my subjects years after the film has been completed and I am always inspired by their bravery and resilience in the face of such adversity. I think that is what motivates me to continue to do what I do.
NJ: As a women’s activist, how did it feel to not only be the first Pakistani to win an Oscar, but also to be a female in the space?
SOC: It felt incredible! I never imagined I would share my work with the world on that stage but it was also a testament to my long-held belief that it doesn’t matter where you come from, if you put quality work out there, if you get people to sit up and think, your work will be recognized.
Winning an Academy Award has allowed me to amplify the message of my films and the voices of my subjects to a greater degree and that has been immensely rewarding.
NJ: We hear you just had a baby, congratulations! Has this major change prompted you to think about the type of world would you like your children to live in?
SOC: I want my children to live in a more compassionate and tolerant world. I grew up in the city of Karachi, the most diverse city in Pakistan. As a child, I remember we celebrated our diversity, now it seems that diversity is what divides us all.
Today, this fluid interpretation of identity has been replaced by a deep-seated fear of the ‘other.’ I believe that many of our issues can be negated simply through open and effective communication between various communities and groups. I hope that one day we will find our common humanity rather than focusing on our superficial differences.
NJ: If you could have all generations live by one message, what would that message be? Why?
SOC: All human beings have the same wants and needs- Do not be blinded by color, race, religion or gender because when all of that is stripped away the human body is the same everywhere in the world!