Newsmaker: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Aliens seeking to improve their understanding of Earthlings by watching the films awarded Oscars this week would probably conclude the occupants of this planet are beyond redemption.
Child abuse in the Roman Catholic church, a mother and child held captive for years in a single room, the callous greed that triggered the 2008 financial collapse, and various other tales of inhumanity. But despite the grim picture of humankind painted by such themes, none matches the ability of the film that won the Best Documentary Short Subject winner to steamroller all faith in human nature.
Quite why the fathers and brothers of the 1,000-or-so young women killed in Pakistan each year for “shaming” their families believe murdering them is an acceptable response will remain a mystery to all who live outside the patriarchal communities that sanction such barbarity.
But in making A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, the 37-year-old Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has once again given a voice to the voiceless – a career-long mission that has earned the recognition of her peers, and now shamed her government into action it should have taken years ago.
During the past 15 years, Obaid-Chinoy has made more than 20 award-winning films that have been shown around the world, on channels including HBO, CNN, Channel 4, CBC and the Discovery Channel.
She collected her first Oscar in 2012, for Saving Face, a documentary about the female victims of acid attacks in Pakistan, which also won her an Emmy.
“Saving Face is a movie that every man and woman in Pakistan must watch to understand the depth of the problem of domestic violence in our country,” wrote one reviewer.
At the time, Obaid-Chinoy was Pakistan’s first Oscar winner, which also earned her the Crescent of Distinction, Pakistan’s second-highest civilian award. Now she’s the country’s first double Oscar winner.
A Girl in the River tells the story of 19-year-old Saba Qaiser, from Punjab. In 2014, she was shot in the face and left for dead by her father and uncle for the “crime” of marrying without her family’s permission.
Unlike most of the victims of such attacks each year in Pakistan, she survived, giving Obaid-Chinoy the chance to tell her story.
When the documentary was nominated for an Oscar, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif pledged “to rid Pakistan of this evil” by introducing a law ending the tradition of honour killers being able to be forgiven by relatives.
“This,” as Obaid-Chinoy said on stage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, “is what happens when determined women get together.”
The Oscars, pronounced New York Magazine this week, “needed Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s speech.” As “a woman of colour [her] words … carried extra weight this year, as she brings visibility to the stories that often go untold, about people rarely seen on screen.”
She was born Sharmeen Obaid, into a progressive, middle-class family in Karachi in 1978, but nevertheless had to fight to win the approval of her father, a wealthy, self-made businessman, to study abroad.
It was, she told The Guardian newspaper in 2007, her mother, Saba, who had been determined that her five daughters should get the best possible education.
Graduating from Karachi Grammar School, it was only after “I staged a 36-hour hunger strike [that] my father let me go to Smith College in Massachusetts”.
Nevertheless, when she won her first Oscar, in 2012, the first people she thanked were “my father and my mother, who have always told me that it doesn’t matter if you were born a woman, you can get anything and everything that you want”.
Graduating from the prestigious women-only Smith College with a degree in economics and government in 2002, Obaid-Chinoy knew she wanted to be a documentary-maker, telling the stories of people whose voices would otherwise not be heard.
While still at college, she had begun working as a freelance journalist, but after 9/11 and the subsequent American attacks on Afghanistan, she decided to switch to film.
“After September 11, I realised that people in the West really have no concept about life in Pakistan or in Afghanistan,” she said in an interview for the non-profit organisation Asia Society in 2003. “If you just read newspapers here, you simply get a description, but unless you have seen pictures or been to that part of the world, there is no way that you can really understand the situation there.”
By the time she emerged from Stanford University in 2004 with twin masters’ in international policy studies and communication, she was already an award-winning filmmaker.
In 2002, having never made a documentary in her life, she “literally sent out proposal letters to a hundred different places”, as she recalled in an interview the following year. Her objective was to tell the story of children driven from their homes in Afghanistan by US bombing, and living as refugees in Karachi.
The rejections flowed like water, but her persistence finally paid off when William Abrams, the president of newly formed New York Times Television, invited her to pitch the idea in person.
“I’ve never in my life hired somebody sight unseen with very minimal television skills and handed them some money to take off … and shoot the story,” Abrams recalled in 2003.
The company even had to train Obaid-Chinoy to use a camera before packing her off to Pakistan with US$10,000 in funding.
It was just a few months after the US journalist Daniel Pearl had been murdered in Pakistan, and “I was very nervous”, Abrams later admitted.
Obaid-Chinoy’s father, Sheikh, was horrified. “My dad was like: ‘Are you mad? What is wrong with you?’” Obaid-Chinoy later said. “After the fourth week, my parents got me bodyguards.”
The result was the powerful documentary Terror’s Children.
In 2005, now resident in Canada, she returned to Pakistan, this time to make Reinventing the Taliban, a film about the Talibanisation of the north-eastern city of Peshawar.
That same year she married Kamal Chinoy, an economics graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the chief executive of the Karachi-based Pakistan Cables.
They have a child, Amelia, who is now “the reason why I make films”, she said after her 2012 Oscar win. “I want the Pakistan that she inherits to be better than the one that we currently live in.”
By 2007, she had made a dozen films in five years, covering life in Pakistan, but also examining the plight of minorities around the world – native American women in Canada, women in Saudi Arabia, Muslims in Sweden and Zimbabweans in South Africa.
“Her portfolio,” commented The Guardian in 2007, “is a global tour of gender oppression and social injustice.”
Her second Emmy came in 2010, for Children of the Taliban, an investigation of how western intervention was creating a generation of child terrorists in her homeland.
When the international spotlight swung onto Pakistan in 2012 after her Oscar for Saving Face, Obaid-Chinoy faced criticism at home for showing the country in a bad light.
“There are pockets of people who feel that my work displays a negative image of Pakistan to the West,” she said in an interview with the Asia Society in 2012. “But I feel that it is important to address issues instead of running away from them, and that the first step is to accept that we have faults just like every other country.
“As an investigative journalist, I feel that it is my duty to address issues that people do not want to discuss.”
Despite her assaults on the worst aspects of traditional Pakistan society, she’s not an enemy of tradition – far from it. In 2007, a decade after leaving Pakistan, she cofounded The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a volunteer organisation formed to promote interest in the culture and history of Pakistan.
“At a time when Pakistan’s youth finds itself caught between religious and state ideology,” said the Asia Society in a tribute to Obaid-Chinoy’s work, “the organisation works with thousands of underprivileged children, inculcating critical-thinking skills and instilling a sense of pride in them about their history and identity.”
As the dust settles on her second Oscar win, Obaid-Chinoy knows that it will take more than the light reflected briefly by a 34-centimetre-tall statuette to change attitudes to honour killings in Pakistan.
More than 18 months after his bungled attempt to murder his daughter, Qaiser’s father is a free man. As Obaid-Chinoy wrote for The Huffington Post this week, her film shows him “proudly boasting [of] a newfound respect and worth in his community”.
On Tuesday, two days after the Oscars, another father motivated by “honour” shot dead his 18-year-old daughter in Lahore.
As Obaid-Chinoy said earlier this month, while waiting to learn if she had won the Oscar: “It will be a bigger win if we do manage to at least begin to send people to jail for honour killings.”
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