“Film has a way of revealing not only the soul of each person you see on screen, but also the core of an issue that might otherwise be seen as a mere headline or statistic.” This is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s philosophy to film-making.

We had the opportunity to interview Obaid-Chinoy, a journalist, film-maker and activist, who has been awarded six Emmy awards and two Oscars – the first Pakistani to do so. But her work is so much more than just film; her documentaries serve as “vessels of information that connect audiences, prompt dialogue, and initiate social change.” Her work sheds light on issues that are often overlooked, building awareness in people all over the world, including us as young Kiwis.

As she describes, “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 more vast and fruitful conversation. I have always maintained that, for me, the biggest accomplishment is when my films are used by non-profits and activists to create social awareness and raise funds for marginalised individuals.”

Courtesy SOC Films.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s first Oscar for her documentary ‘Saving Face’. Courtesy SOC Films.

Obaid-Chinoy has been a keen writer since 14 years old, and an investigative journalist since 17 – a pursuit primarily fuelled by anger, and the opportunity journalism presented to name-and-shame. An incident, where the subject of one of her articles spray-painted her name with profanities near her home, almost drove her to quit. But her upbringing, and notably her father, “instilled a sense of purpose in me, and motivated me to never take no for answer; this motto continues to guide my career today.” This motivation led her to the United States, where she studied and became a print journalist. When 9/11 happened, she began to feel limited by the one-dimensional nature of print work, so seeking a more visual medium, taught herself about film-making.

Since then, she has directed and produced over 20 documentaries. But they are really so much more than that. Obaid-Chinoy says, “My experience has 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 that are not usually given the opportunity to speak for themselves.”

Some examples of the change Obaid-Chinoy’s documentaries have contributed to:

  • Iraq: The Lost Generation, a film about Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, resulted in a number of the refugees being granted asylum.
  • Funds were raised towards medical treatment for Nasreen, featured in Cold Comfort, an earthquake survivor who was also shot six times, caught in a crossfire.
  •  The government was lobbied for increased access to contraception for women after health activist Dr Junice Melgar viewed City of Guilt, a film about clandestine abortions in the Philippines..
  • Saving Face covered acid attacks against women in Pakistan. After the film’s release, the crime was recognised as terrorism act by the government of Punjab and special courts were created to dispense speedy justice.
  • Sabina Khatri, a young woman featured in Ho Yaqeen, chose to tackle crime and poverty by opening a Montessori in the heart of Lyari, one of the most dangerous towns in Karachi, Pakistan. After the film aired, a number of people gave its students scholarships.
Courtesy SOC Films.

Behind-the-scenes shot from the Oscar-winning documentary ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’. Courtesy SOC Films.

Within the last decade, action against gender inequality, which Obaid-Chinoy is a strong advocate for, has also been facilitated by other means. Women are now equipped with a new ‘weapon’ when battling patriarchal systems; birthing a wave of feminism enabling them to be outspoken and take action against gender inequality. A movement where crowds are rallied with the use of simple but powerful hashtags.

Social media has not only helped elevate women’s voices, but also democratise feminist activism in Pakistan, New Zealand, and many other countries, by helping to transcend traditional barriers like those linked to geography and money. We hear and see a more diverse group of women, rather than purely men or ‘elite or privileged’ women.

Obaid-Chinoy has witnessed the growing power of social media, but is careful to point out that women still face risks. She says, “Women in Pakistan have a new perspective on their rights thanks to the media and the penetration of the cell phone across the country. Yet, these women are faced with a number of existential threats, and violence against them is continuing to rise. Perhaps one of the reasons behind this is that more and more women are speaking out and asking for their rights.” 

One notable example is social media star Qandeel Baloch – you’ll probably remember her, even if you are a Kiwi living in New Zealand. It was only last year that international headlines screamed her name, in what became Pakistan’s most high profile honour killing.

Baloch had risen to fame for her online ‘sex and body-positive’ posts which were deemed  ‘indecent’, ‘sexual’, and ‘promiscuous’ by many subscribed to Pakistan’s conservative values. As sociologist Nosheen Ali points out, “In Pakistan, being comfortable with your sexuality is the antithesis of being a ‘proper woman’.”

Baloch, however, openly rejected the idea of censoring her sexuality and labelled herself a  “one-woman army.” Hours before her death, she proclaimed on social media, “I believe I am a modern day feminist. I believe in equality…I am just a woman [sic] with free thoughts, free mindset and I love the way I am.”

Her death, unsurprisingly, reignited the debate on honour killings in Pakistan. Many mourned her, calling her “a rebel, an artist, and a gutsy feminist provocateur” and demanded for legal reforms which prevented the murderer(s) from escaping freely when granted forgiveness by the victim’s family. Others celebrated and blamed Baloch for her own death.

Obaid-Chinoy engaged in the debate, tweeting “#QandeelBaloch killed in an #honorkilling—how many women have to die before we pass the Anti Honor Killing Bill” and later created a short film, Qandeel Baloch: A Very Short Story, which was narrated by pop icon Madonna.

Courtesy SOC Films.

(Left to right) Madonna, Humaira Bachal, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Courtesy SOC Films.

She is now working on a series of short ‘informative videos’ which aim to to educate Pakistani women on their legal rights relating to sexual harassment, divorce, rape, inheritance, and more. She hopes that “through these videos, women are able to acquire accurate information and clarity about the law – and what options they have should they find themselves in a vulnerable or compromising situation.”

Finally, her response to two young Kiwis asking for advice?

“My advice to young directors would be to pay no heed to naysayers; don’t wait for an opportunity to open up, instead be proactive. Use whatever resources are available to you and continue to practice and persevere. Whether it is using your cell phone instead of a fancy camera, or submitting a short film to a local festival, do the best with what you have. Spend time learning and perfecting your craft, and don’t let your ego get the best of you.”

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