In Conversation with SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY Pakistan’s Fearless Storyteller

Stories that matter- that’s the tagline to a major initiative by a woman who single handedly rocked the very core of how films are able to direct attention towards important issues. Two-time Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker ‘Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’ is the mastermind behind Karachi-based modern film production house ‘SOC’ Films. Having put Pakistan on the map as she continues to win accolades for her incredible and dedicated work while also facing criticism from others, who argue her work depicts the flaws within the society, she continues to fearlessly craft visuals that largely highlight the plight of women of this country, Sharmeen recently unveiled five documentaries aimed at spreading awareness on women’s rights to property and the legal pathways provided to women to protect their rights and access the laws of Pakistan. Speaking to Social Diary, the gifted and dynamic filmmaker who has been creating films that truly matter for 20 years, has no plans of slowing down as she transitions towards narrative filmmaking with her co-directing the highly anticipated Ms. Marvel series. Having Bringing forth the power of film in all its majesty, here’s our exclusive conversation with this absolute remarkable woman of substance:

LONDON, ENGLAND – JUNE 01: (L-R) Madonna, Humaira Bachal and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy pose backstage in the media room at the “Chime For Change: The Sound Of Change Live” Concert at Twickenham Stadium on June 1, 2013 in London, England. Chime For Change is a global campaign for girls’ and women’s empowerment founded by Gucci with a founding committee comprised of Gucci Creative Director Frida Giannini, Salma Hayek Pinault and Beyonce Knowles-Carter. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Gucci)

SD: In one of your TED talks, you said that you wish to share stories that will jolt people, to shake them- but don’t you feel projecting all the negative aspects of our country will add more limitations to our progression?
Sharmeen: Unfortunately I am looking at it in a completely different way. We need to realize and own the many issues our country is facing. We can no longer afford to hide them. One of the things which is positive and progressive about it, is that we are talking about these issues. Speaking out will lead to solving the myriad of problems that we have in Pakistan. While there are those who suggest that we shouldn’t be talking at all, I however feel, only when we speak of them, will we be able to solve them. Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan was of a nation where men and women, as well as minorities had equal rights. We have strayed far away from that vision. It is extremely important for our generation to hold people accountable; to say that the men who violate these laws are to be punished. And I will continue to speak out about it as should everyone else. My question is do you want more murder victims, honor killings, acid crimes etc in Pakistan or would you want a country which is safe for women?

SD: You have emphasized the need to invest in the cultural and artistic infrastructure of a country for it to flourish- but when it comes to cultural views deeply rooted for years, how can we flourish growth and a fresh edge without hurting sentiments?
Sharmeen: I think change happens slowly and it happens as a movement. And it can only happen when you have young people investing in a progressive Pakistan; it is when you have a government which is supporting that vision. I feel social media helps a lot in changing perspective as well; opening up about things which people normally wouldn’t. Pakistan’s culture is in its homes. It’s in our traditions. It’s in the way we celebrate our marriages, our festivals and that is because it is in the private domain, it will remain so. What we need to emphasize more is our culture which existed before the British came into India. Pakistanis aren’t aware of our cultural stance which predates the British reign.

Harappan civilization, Mohenjo Daro- the way that they lived, the lives that they had. The question we need to ponder upon is ” What were we before the English came in?” It’s extremely important for us to engage in that conversation because for thousands of years, we all coexisted harmoniously in the Indian subcontinent region. As much as people would like to believe our culture is different, there are shades of our culture across all of the Southasian countries. And since there was an entire generation connected to India, Bangladesh pre-partition which is now gone, our generation has very little links to those countries. So we need to emphasize we have a shared culture. Those who don’t believe so are mistaking our culture with that of the Middle East. Our language, our food, our traditions, our lifestyle, our marriages- they are all very different and we have to learn who we truly are. So it is important that we educate ourselves where we come from- that will help us.

SD: Mobile cinemas- you had come up with this concept of showing these movies to bring forth creativity and change? How far along have they come in attaining that goal?
Sharmeen: We decided about five years ago that we would build this initiative where we would go into the heartland and reach men, women and children. This is because the work that I do doesn’t come on television so we have to allow it to reach the people at the grassroot level in some way. We talk about taboo subjects- like sexual harrasment, rape, incest, even inheritance rights-things they are not fully aware of. While there are definite setbacks, you have to learn to work with the community. As long as you work with the grassroot communities, you will make it!

SD: You have displayed work of art on many serious issues-acid victims, honor killings, migrant crisis- how hard is it for you to bring them onto screen?
Sharmeen: When we look at the injustices taking place; when we know that the laws exist but they are not being implemented fully; when we see men getting away with crimes, not being held accountable, it just shows that others are getting the boost to follow the very same path. I have been making films for 20 years. My first film was in 2002 and we are in 2022- the issues are the same, the actors are the same, and the laws are the same. I can see why fatigue sets in but what is reassuring is that more and more people are saying “No… I will not accept the status quo. I want change”. So this is the progress we are making.

SD: Coming to your first Oscar win for Saving face – the first thought that came into your mind when you heard your name called out on stage?
Sharmeen: In 2012 when we learned we were nominated, it was quite a shock. And then actually having to win that award was so incredible. I have to say though it was a moment for Pakistan and Pakistanis around the world to feel proud of having someone of their own to walk that stage. It was also the first time after a very long time that a Pakistani had won on such a credible platform. It was definitely a special moment to represent my country, my home and my people. And ofcourse to showcase how women in Pakistan are capable of competing with the rest of the world.

SD: 3 Bahadur is Pakistan’s first computer-animated film- it was a major hit. Would you consider taking on a full feature length film as well anytime soon- possibly with fictional characters but telling an important issue or story close to you?
Sharmeen: I have transitioned into live-action doing Ms.Marvel which is coming out in June. So yes, I am moving towards live-action and narrative stories but these too have in the heart the same storyline and passion with which I make my documentaries.

SD: Ms.Marvel- pumped to the core about a Pakistani Muslim Hero- how was your experience as a co-director?
Sharmeen: Ms.Marvel was truly an amazing experience as I went on from becoming a documentary filmmaker to being a narrative filmmaker and playing with the big boys. It is because anything that I wanted was made possible and I worked with some of the finest teams in the world in terms of VFX, stunts, set designs- it was an experience I’ll always cherish, telling such an important story where we have the world witnessing the first Muslim superhero. It will make a major impact. Young people seeing representation of themselves on the big screen is extremely important. And Ms.Marvel will allow them to do so.

SD: What is the most important issue do you wish we need to- as a collective community- focus on and bring attention to in 2022?
Sharmeen: We should be talking about disinformation and how hate speech originates in this country. How rumors start and how they spiral out of control. Because now we are finding out more and more how hate speech and disinformation causes people to lose their lives. We have to figure out a way to curb that!



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