Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (L) and Geeta Gandbhir from
"A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers" at the 2015 Toronto
International Film Festival. Photo: Jeff Vespa
are as simultaneously despised and pitied as Muslim women. Largely relegated to
both helpless victim and existential threat, their voices are muffled by a
western media and public that treats their lives and bodies as blank canvases
onto which others are free to paint their fears and suspicions.
new documentary, A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, Oscar-winning
Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Indian-American co-director Geeta
Gandbhir, cut through prevailing myths and stereotypes. The feature-length
documentary follows an all-female Bangladeshi police unit who leave behind
their husbands and children as they head to post-earthquake Haiti on a 12-month
mission for the United Nations.
directors, in town for the Sydney Film Festival, became aware of all-female
peacekeeping units when Gandbhir came across a newspaper article on Indian
women deployed to Liberia. "My family is originally from India," she
told me. "And I've really never heard this before. The coverage you see
about women from our part of the world, it tends to be one-sided, so you don't
hear a lot about women doing these things that defy the stereotypes."
Gandbhir, herself an Emmy-award winner, approached Obaid-Chinoy and that's when
they discovered the Bangaledeshi units. "That became even more
interesting," Singh explains. "Because Bangladesh is a predominantly
Muslim country, and… you know, you don't hear their voices at all."
the space of a year, Peacekeepers centres on four of the policewomen as they
enter this unchartered territory. "I want audiences to understand that
Muslim women are capable of doing so much (more) than what the media portrays
them as being able to do," says Obaid-Chinoy.
are not always victims. They're fighters. They… really do have a fate but that
fate does not define everything in their lives."
myth-busting begins long before the women set foot on Haiti. In one of the
film's most moving scenes, the women board their bus to the airport. Amidst
teary farewells, the departing mothers hand over the bewildered children to the
husbands they are leaving behind.
me (this) is the most poignant scene." Obaid-Chinoy states. "You
often see in war movies - whether it's Hollywood or any cinema - you see the
men going off. To see the role reversal, especially in a country like
Bangladesh, for me, that's the most liberating thing about the film."
filmmakers hope that all women will see something of themselves in the
Bangladeshi cast. "I want audiences (to) strip away the colour, the
geography, the religion, the culture, and just see these women as mothers who
are faced with the same type of choices that mothers in the audiences
are," Obaid-Chinoy says.
I leave my four-year-old toddler to earn more money for the family? What is it
like to be far away from your family (and) husband? We want audiences to see
these as family events, as husbands and wives that are making some of the same
decisions that husbands and wives are making all over the world."
to the universal by focusing on the intensely personal is something of a theme
in Obaid-Chinoy's work. Also screening at the festival is her Academy-Award
winning short documentary A Girl In The River: The Price of Forgiveness, which
tells the remarkable story of nineteen-year-old Saba Qaiser.
Shot in the
head and dumped in a river by her own uncle and father, Saba embarks on a
determined quest for justice, only to meet with relentless pressure from a
society coercing her to "forgive" her attackers. Pakistan's
forgiveness law allows perpetrators of honour crimes to walk away from prison
if the family of their victim (or in this rare case, the survivor herself), is
willing to forgive their crime.
Obaid-Chinoy, A Girl in the River is no meditation on the disempowerment of
women in rural Pakistan.
me, Saba is a hero," she tells me. "Because she chose to speak out.
Because despite all of the system stacked against her, the fact that she is
illiterate, the fact that she comes from a family where women never speak out,
she (still) chose to tell her story and she did it in a manner that resonated
with so many people."
respect, Obaid-Chinoy insists, Saba is "just as strong as the Bangladeshi
western audiences may not think they could have much in common with a woman
like Saba, ultimately, says Obaid-Chinoy, the film is about "how society
pressures women to succumb to what the status quo is. And it's very emblematic
of women in any part of the world.
are societal pressures on women to conform everywhere," she adds.
"Especially when you think about sexual violence against women: less than
40 percent of women ever report sexual violence against them and it all has to
do with the fact that nobody wants to speak out."
decision to speak left such a huge impression on Pakistan, the prime minister
vowed to crack down on honour killings by introducing legislation to overturn
the forgiveness law. "The religious political parties have put up a fight
against it," Obaid-Chinoy explains, "but I believe it is coming back
into parliament in the next couple of weeks."
And that is
the power of film; to create a dialogue and ignite the fires of change, with
much of the responsibility for this change falling firmly on to the audience.
"I think with social justice films, there is an ask of an audience,"
agrees Gandbhir. "A call to action. And I think people respond best to a
story that allows them to walk in the shoes of someone else and that's what we
strive to do."
directors have a history of making films that demand social change.
Obaid-Chinoy netted her first Oscar for a short documentary on acid attacks,
Saving Face, while Gandbhir cut her teeth editing films for Spike Lee before
embarking on a series on race relations in the United States.
either woman is letting her considerable achievements go to her head.
"None of us are magicians," cautions Obaid-Chinoy. "We are
filmmakers and our job is to spark discussion and to get people to think about
issues from a different perspective."