Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: In the hotseat with the Oscar-winner

obaid_041312025338Look past the glitz and glamour of the Oscar’s red carpet and you’ll see some tremendously talented women being feted. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, 37, has become the first Pakistani woman to win two Oscars, and being honoured in Hollywood does get you a phenomenal stage to showcase important issues – precisely the ones she has been making movies on. She won the Oscar for Best Short Subject Documentary Film, for ‘A Girl In The River – The Price of Forgivness’, which focuses on honour killings in Pak, and follows an 18-year-old girl who survived being shot by her family, to redeem their ‘honour’. And the documentary deserves all the praise it has been receiving. 

Below is an interview with her, that she gave to Juhi Baveja, after her first Oscar win, for a movie she made about acid attacks in Pak. The issues are similar to the ones we face in India, and so, her stories are tied to the one’s of the subcontinent, and that of the world.

Earning the status of being the first Pakistani woman to win an Oscar, being conferred with a civil award in her native country, and rubbing shoulders with Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie backstage; all this has come to a very surprised Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in a very short time. Winning an Academy Award for the Best Documentary (Short) for Saving Face, a poignant feature on victims of acid attacks, will certainly open a lot of doors for the Pakistani-Canadian journalist Obaid-Chinoy, but the real achievement is what follows immediately- the 33-year old auteur says that the impact of the film has spread far and wide, giving its subject a global voice.

This is of course not discounting the fact that the win itself was a dream come true. “It was a surreal feeling, one that didn’t fully sink in until I entered the Kodak Theatre. When Saving Face was announced as the winner, I froze in my seat. It was only when I saw Daniel (Junge) bounding down the stairs that I realised our film had won.” she says.

Obaid-Chinoy has dedicated her win to all the women working for a change in Pakistan-Saving Face is a hard-hitting exploration of the lives of victims of acid attacks in Pakistan and the Londonbased Dr Mohammad Jawad who returned to his native country to perform reconstructive surgery on them.

Conceived by Obaid-Chinoy, who has always been drawn to the issues of the marginalised sections, and the American director Daniel Junge, the film highlights the issue of acid violence, a systemically underreported crime that affects over a hundred women in Southern Punjab each year.

While Saving Face effectively conveys the pervasive impact of acid violence, it also traces the emergence of support groups like Acid Survivors Foundation-Pakistan and the subsequent legislation against the perpetrators, which was promulgated by the government.

“I am drawn to narratives that showcase the determination of women and highlight structural issues in society,” says Obaid-Chinoy about the intricacies of the movie and her contribution. “Additionally, Daniel is an accomplished filmmaker who I respect and having already been familiar with each other’s work we were able to collaborate successfully.”

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The prolific director spent a lot of time with her subjects, off camera, getting to know them, something that is easily reflected in her work. With Rukhsana, one of the protagonists, she discussed in depth the circumstances and nuances of the former’s heart-rending story. And being a journalist helped Obaid-Chinoy maintain objectivity and refrain from portraying a subjective view of the affected victim.

Her long reign of successful endeavours include her first article written for Dawn at the age of 14, working as an international producer and correspondent for The New York Times, Al Jazeera International, and Channel 4, among others.

Her first brush with fame was winning a Livingston Award for Young Journalists (she was the first non-American to do so) and an Emmy Award for her documentary Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, which explores the perils of Taliban rule. Obaid-Chinoy’s work has encompassed the status of marginalised communities and human rights, from Saudi Arabia to Philippines.

Obaid-Chinoy was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and studied at Smith College and Stanford University in the States. “It was my education at Smith College that inspired me to make a difference, especially for women’s rights. And my education in Karachi taught me where to direct this energy.” Growing up in Pakistan, her first source of support came from her family.

“My parents have stood by my career choices,” she says. While her work has addressed the problems of a conservative nation, she claims that Pakistan is hailing its women in many ways. “Saving Face portrays a positive image of Pakistan, one that is progressing towards being inclusive of the voices of women. Though we are not even close to achieving the ideal status for women, the movie shows that the foundation has been set and we are on the path towards fostering change. It is the voices of the powerless women that we must turn to now.”

While Saving Face effectively conveys the pervasive impact of acid violence to its audience, Obaid-Chinoy’s 2010 Emmy Award-winning Pakistan: Children of the Taliban studies the way in which innocent children are born into the conflict and are raised into their pre-determined roles of suicide bombers.

Apart from these, she has also made 14 acclaimed international documentaries, about issues related to the concerns of the wider Muslim world, those voices which often get lost in the larger conflict at hand.

She has also facilitated outreach programmes which focus on ground-level support of victims, like the Acid Survivors Trust International, Islamic Help, and Virtue Foundation for Taliban victims as well as children in the Muslim world. She has also recently opened her own production house, SOC Films, in Karachi last year, which will focus on generating more locally produced content. Currently, Obaid-Chinoy is shifting gears and working on a children’s animated series and planning a new movie.

Counting Nelson Mandela as one of her idols, she reckons that she would be running a women’s shelter if not for her journalistic ambitions. She effortlessly balances work with motherhood, even as she shuttles between Canada and her various filming locations. Apart from thriving on her work, she unwinds by watching movies and counts Moneyball as one of her Oscar favourites from this year. About visiting India, she says “I just received an invitation for the Jaipur Literary Festival from William Dalrymple. I look forward to attending!”

This article appeared in Harper’s Bazaar India, 2012 December Issue.