Leadership in Action: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Abiha Jafri Meeting at the United Nations

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a Pakistani journalist, filmmaker and activist who received an  Academy Award for her documentaries, “Saving Face” and “A Girl In the River”that made her the First Pakistani Director to win two Academy Awards and one of only eleven female directors to win the award for a non-fiction film.  In 2012, the Government of Pakistan awarded her the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, the second highest civilian honor of the country. Time named her in its annual list of the “100 most influential people” in the world for 2012.

Sharmeen’s determination and passion for change began at the age of 10, while driving to school through the streets of Karachi–Pakistan’s largest city–when she witnessed a little girl her age begging for money in the street.   This encounter with inequality made her inquisitive about the world around her and she began asking difficult questions.  Sharmeen’s curiosity led to her interest in writing. As a young adult, she began writing for newspapers, which led to her first investigative journalism assignment at age seventeen. Since her article touched on difficult issues, her family was exposed to retaliation. Since she was only seventeen, she was initially afraid. However, her father reassured her and told her, “If you speak the truth, I will stand with you. And so will the world.” This was Sharmeen’s first lesson: Always tell the truth.

Sharmeen completed her undergraduate education at Smith College, in the US where she continued to write for various newspapers.  After September 11th, she realized her understanding of both the Muslim world and the US required her to bring stories from the “East” to the “West”.  She was attracted to documentaries because they explained complex issues visually. Sharmeen wanted her first piece to be on Afghan refugee children in Pakistan. However, many were reluctant to consider her due to her lack of experience in the field. She was adamant and determined to accomplish her goal. After several rejections, she presented her documentary proposal to The New York Times. This was her second life lesson: Never take no for an answer, and if a door has not opened for you, you have not kicked hard enough.

Sharmeen has continued to make films about difficult issues including women’s rights, Afghanistan and Iraq. She highlights heroes working towards change and exposes stories behind events in Pakistan that most people find difficult to discuss because she wants to tell Pakistan’s stories to the world.

APF’s Abiha Jafri interviewed Sharmeen and had the opportunity to learn of her phenomenal journey as a filmmaker alongside an APF delegation to the United Nations Planet 5050 Gender Equality Conference.

How did you choose filmmaking as your medium of expression?

My interest in documentary filmmaking and narrative-based storytelling was sparked in 2001, when the tragic events of September 11th shifted the world’s focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. At that time, I was a print journalist, and 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.

How do you come upon and/or select your subjects?

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 in my films inspire me because they represent unwavering courage and determination. Sometimes I am inspired by something as simple as reading a news article or having a short conversation with someone I don’t know. I want to tell stories from an alternative viewpoint or question preconceived notions.

What role do films including documentaries have in activism?

I believe that film can be a powerful tool to convey complex and difficult problems in a way that prompts dialogue and empathy. My aim is to produce content that pushes people to look at the world more critically and thereby create an environment for social change and development.

What motivates you?

As a documentary filmmaker, I feel that it is my duty to address issues that people do not want to discuss. I’ve always been interested in topics about human rights and women’s issues that many people find controversial. I choose to film subjects that spark difficult conversations and make people uncomfortable. Change only comes about when people are forced to discuss an issue, and that’s what I hope my films do by highlighting the issue.

What is a specific challenge that you have overcome while film making and how did you overcome it?

As a documentary filmmaker, you have to learn to deal with things that don’t go your way. Being able to adjust is crucial to this profession and capturing all the different constituents of a phenomenon on camera is very challenging. It requires you to always be in the right place at the right time and that is not possible. Over the years I have realized that it’s essential to enter any situation as prepared and aware as possible, with contingency plans in place. At the same time, as filmmakers, we also have to be reasonable about where and who we can shoot. Many areas in Pakistan are completely off limits, and we need to alter our plans accordingly. Being a good filmmaker is about taking calculated risks, not diving in without a second thought.

Please describe a moment of triumph.

Many of my films have been used by nonprofits and activists to create social awareness and raise funds.

I made a film about Humaira Bachal who taught 1200 underprivileged children in her community in an empty plot in Muwach Goth, a dangerous and poverty-stricken area in Karachi. Humaira was invited on stage by Madonna at the Chime for Change concert held in London. Madonna also helped raised funds for Humaira’s cause through her Ray of Light Foundation after which Humaira was able to build her new school.

“Iraq: The Lost Generation” was a film I did about Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan. A number of the refugees featured in the film were granted asylum afterwards.

As a filmmaker, my primary job is to spark difficult conversations so that people can begin looking at previously ignored issues. I think there exists a misconception that filmmakers are meant to “fix” things! It is our hope that by highlighting the efforts and struggles of marginalized individuals who are caught in difficult circumstances we can bring attention to communities and people whose voices need to be amplified.

What can the Diaspora do to contribute to the socio-economic development of Pakistan?

I think it is very important for Pakistanis living in Pakistan and abroad to invest in the country’s youth – their education, vocational training and employment opportunities.

Can you describe your experience with 3 Bahadur? What were the commonalities and differences between your usual work in documentaries and this animated film?  How did the audience react to the film?

I was nervous because I had never worked in animation before, and documentary films are very different in terms of content and style. Documentary films are fluid in nature because the filmmaker is dependent on reality – the story develops organically and we capture it through the experiences and testimonies of our characters. With animation, you work in phases, from the original concept, to the storyboard, and then eventually the final material. At the end of the day, I want to tell stories that matter and finding the right platform to tell a story is part of the process.

When we started working on 3 Bahadur back in the summer of 2012, it was an uphill climb – putting together a team, learning how animation works from the initial sketch to the final shot, and diving into a medium that is both expensive and time consuming. What surprised me was the ease with which we found exceptional illustrators, writers, animators and visual effect artists and, with their help, we found our pace a few months into the project. Seeing the characters that had only existed in static images come to life with their own quirks and mannerisms was an incredible experience!

What do you see as Pakistan’s most pressing issue?

As a woman who has been fortunate enough to enjoy certain liberties, it alarms me that many women around me are not even awarded basic human rights. I fear that a healthy and necessary conversation about gender often gets swallowed by what is 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. For me, the most pressing issue in Pakistan is women’s rights.

Are there any current or upcoming projects that we can look forward to?

We are currently in the process of making a sequel to 3 Bahadur, which we hope to launch at the end of this year!