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Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Crusading for Pakistan

By Maliha Rehman

14 February 2016

What do you do if you’re nominated to win an Oscar? If you’re Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the days preceding the ceremony are jam-packed with long talks supporting a cause that you are dedicated to, working through political red-tape while trying to get an important bill passed, winding your way through extensive travel plans and squeezing in alone-time with your two little daughters.

Some time is dwelt upon selecting the wardrobe for the Oscars and constructing an acceptance speech, on the chance of winning, but these considerations are hardly the be all and end all of Sharmeen’s day.

“Right now I’m just very focused on prompting the stakeholders in getting the Anti-Honour Killing bill passed,” she explains. “If I succeed, then that, in reality, will be my real win.”

Sharmeen’s A Girl in the River — The Price of Forgiveness depicts the horror of honour killing within Pakistan. The documentary’s protagonist, a girl quite literally being thrown into the river by her father and uncle, manages to survive being killed in the name of ‘honour’. With the aid of the local police, she gets her assaulters arrested but is then pressurised by her family to forgive them, and allow them to go free.

This story, shocking though it may be, is a sad reality. Legal loopholes in the system provide the rare survivors of honour killings to forgive family members who tried to kill them because they have done a shameful act, such as be suspected of adultery. “Already, this documentary has made enough noise to initiate countrywide discourse,” observes Sharmeen. “That is a small victory in itself. The system needs to recognise that these are people committing cold-blooded premeditated murders and that they can’t be allowed to go free.”

As Pakistan’s one and only Oscar award winner — her Saving Face brought home the coveted statuette back in 2012 — Sharmeen’s name immediately adds credibility to her efforts against honour killing. Needless to say, the documentary’s nomination at this year’s 88th Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Short Subject category has helped augment support across the country.

Following the announcement of the Oscar nomination, PM Nawaz Sharif promised to ‘rid Pakistan of this evil by bringing in appropriate legislation’. “We hope to have the documentary initially screened at the Prime Minister house, following which we want to show it to students in universities and colleges and air it in local cinemas for a week,” plans Sharmeen.

Woman with a Cause

From honour killings to the plight of acid victims, the inculcation of children in terrorist Taliban armies and Lahore’s waning musical arts to beyond Pakistan, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and the harsh realities faced by policewomen working for the United Nations in Haiti — this is not the first time Sharmeen has told a story that is distressingly true.

“I have worked across the globe, from Pakistan to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Afghanistan. The mindsets and cultures may differ but there are brave and resilient people everywhere who want the truth to be spoken out loud,” she says. “Most people in Pakistan just know me from 2012, when I won the Oscar for Saving Face but in a span of 16 years, I have actually filmed over 20 documentaries. My sole driving force has been to tell stories that need to be highlighted. I want people to feel uncomfortable when they see my work, I want to make them think and perhaps, initiate an impetus for change.”

Quite often, her line of work has led her into risky territory. She’s interviewed young boys in Taliban refugee camps, worked under extreme scrutiny in Saudi Arabia and more often than ever, fought rigid mindsets that find nothing wrong with seeking revenge by burning a woman or killing her for honour. “I don’t get scared easily,” she explains. “My father once told me that if I spoke the truth, he would always stand by me and so would the world. I am very fatalistic and believe that when your time to go comes, it comes. That means you should just go on and do what you have to do.”

Saving Face raised enough hue and cry to persuade the Punjab government to allow acid-burning cases to be processed more quickly. And now, Sharmeen’s crusading against honour killings wherever she can; in talks with students at local universities, within the erudite boundaries of the recent Karachi Literature Festival, over social media and soon enough, on the Oscars’ global stage.

The Glamour Zone

As pre-Oscar events begin, Sharmeen’s already flying back and forth between the US and Pakistan. At the 88th Academy Awards nominees’ luncheon this week, she was spotted wearing Sania Maskatiya and jewellery by Sherezad Rahimtoola. “It’s going to be fairly glamorous, there’s a very illustrious list of nominees this time,” she said before leaving. The images of her filtering in over social media — with Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo and Steven Spielberg — attest to this.

It is difficult to equate this glamorous side to Sharmeen’s life with the gritty realities that define her work. She’s wandered the slums of Karachi, sans make-up and head covered and yet she is just as much at ease in designer wear at the Oscars red carpet. The corridors of the SOC Films building are lined with posters of hard-hitting documentaries but a shelf within her office also shows her hobnobbing with the rich and famous; at the Oscars, with Meryl Streep in countless images and shaking hands with Hilary Clinton.

In 2012, she was slotted as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, with actress Angelina Jolie writing her introduction. Also, in a concert in London in 2013, Madonna aligned with her to help raise funds for the construction of a school in Karachi’s slums.

“I may know some people but it is because I have slowly worked my way through the ranks, filming in conflict zones, drawing attention to issues that matter,” she points out. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy attending the events and the glamour. I work hard and then I enjoy myself. On a more important note, a global platform like the Oscars allows me to share my message with stars from around the world.”

“It’s been a lucky year for me,” she continues. “My film Song of Lahore premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2015 and its premiere in New York in November was hosted by Meryl Streep. Another documentary, Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It (2015) was also the year when we released 3 Bahadur under the banner of Waadi Animations. As Pakistan’s first-ever animated movie scripted entirely in Urdu, it was very successful.”

A sequel to 3 Bahadur is already under production and is set to release by the end of this year. Also in the pipeline is a documentary titled Pakistan Remembers, narrating the changes in Pakistan’s major cities. Paying homage to the past through photographs and memorabilia and then zoning in on the present, the film will rely heavily on the archives of the Citizens Archive Pakistan (CAP), an organisation co-founded by Sharmeen, dedicating to preserving Pakistan’s heritage.

A Cause for Pakistan

“I have always been passionate about women and children and at 37, I am lucky to be doing work that helps and entertains them,” says Sharmeen. But the causes close to her heart are often those that resonate with every Pakistani. In an effort to convict and imprison honour killing enforcers, Sharmeen’s team has uploaded an online petition, urging the PM to curb the heinous crime altogether.

Despite the publicity generated by the Oscar nomination, only 1,500 signees had been collated at the time at which this story is written. To fight against inhumanity and prejudice shouldn’t have to be just Sharmeen’s cause. And ideally, an Oscar nomination shouldn’t be required to remind us of it.