Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Living with Oscar

Published in May-Jun 2012
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in profile.

The two-iPhone wielding, brisk to the point of being brusque, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a pretty controversial figure. Before meeting her a few weeks ago, I YouTubed some of her work and was taken aback by the comments on the videos, which ranged from mild contempt to positively threatening. The topics she chose for her documentaries (Afghan refugee children, child marriages, acid burn victims) aren’t exactly chick lit but it’s not only her content that arouses strong feelings, it’s the person herself.

Even her Oscar win has been vilified. ‘She chose a topic that would appeal to western audiences’, ‘she portrayed a negative image of Pakistan’, ‘she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and didn’t have to struggle’, are some of the criticisms thrown her way.

Some of this can be written off as envy (surely the lot of anyone who owns one of those highly coveted golden statuettes) but part of it is also ignorance about who Obaid-Chinoy is. Although she has many other international awards, including the Alfred duPont Award (Children of the Taliban), the Livingston Award (Best International Reporting under the age of 35) and an Emmy (Pakistan’s Taliban Generation), Obaid-Chinoy’s fame within Pakistan was limited before she won the Oscar because none of her films have been aired or distributed in the country (not unless you count pirated DVDs).

She has always been better known internationally which is greatly to her credit, and Obaid-Chinoy uses this to defend herself against those who suggest that she has never had to struggle.

“My struggle has been that I was born in Pakistan and my films are shown across the world; not everyone is able to achieve what I have done,” she says, completely matter of fact.

With considerable economy of expression (perhaps a result of constant re-telling), Obaid-Chinoy tells me about how she started doing documentaries at 21 without any experience in filmmaking.

“I wanted to do a film on Afghan refugee kids; I wrote a proposal and sent it to 80 people. No one replied so I made a last ditch attempt and wrote to the President of NYT TV. He called and asked to meet me. I bought my first business suit and went off to NY to meet a boardroom full of experienced people. The liked my proposal, trained me for two weeks and off I went to Pakistan to start filming.”

“My struggle has been that I was born in Pakistan and my films are shown across the world; not everyone is able to achieve what I have done.”

There have been 15 more films since that initial documentary on issues ranging from Canada’s Aboriginal people (Highway of Tears), contraception taboos in the Philippines (City of Guilt) and Iraqi exiles (Iraq: The Lost Generation) to the plight of Saudi women (Women of the Holy Kingdom), transgenders in Pakistan (Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret) and of course the widely acclaimed Saving Face. In spite of this varied body of work and the subsequent awards, Obaid-Chinoy still struggles to find financing for her films, saying that “50% of my time is spent applying for grants; it is a very tedious process.”

Although fortune has certainly favoured Obaid-Chinoy, she also keeps her nose firmly to the grindstone whether it is work or family. While she’s committed to spending time with her husband and 20-month old daughter, she also works 12-hour days, admitting “I’m a workaholic and I have no boundaries.”

Beyond the documentaries (she is currently working on eight, all of which are at different stages of the production process), Obaid-Chinoy is also the President of the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a non-profit organisation dedicated to cultural and historic preservation, a TED Fellow, an Asia Society Fellow and a public speaker.

As if all this was not enough to more than adequately fill her time, last year she set up SOC Films, a Karachi-based film house which specialises in ‘socially motivated content’. There are two projects currently in the works – an animated series for children and another series of films – and both are for the local market.

The local market also finally appears to be taking an interest in Obaid-Chinoy. Saving Face, she tells me, will soon be shown at one of the major cinemas in Karachi, and in the post-Oscar blaze, local TV channels are showing interest in airing her documentaries. She is pleased about this in a quiet, reserved sort of way but not over the moon it seems. When I ask if having an Oscar is good for business, she replies:

“If I had been a filmmaker who had never won anything, it would have been good, but I have consistently won awards for 11 years and people abroad know my work. The Oscar reinforced the fact that good storytelling wins, no matter where you come from.”

This then, is how Obaid-Chinoy identifies herself, as a storyteller who chooses topics that resonate with people. She is quite set on the fact that she wants to tell gritty stories that make people uncomfortable and seethes with annoyance when she responds to criticism about her choice of difficult topics:

“Ad agencies make ads about products; filmmakers make films about real issues. Ads are supposed to be positive, films should have a message, but people don’t get that.”

Spreading awareness about difficult issues and getting people to talk about them is only part of the intention. Although Obaid-Chinoy knows that everyone who watches the films will not act on the issue, advocacy is a major reason for doing what she does. She mentions Iraq: The Lost Generation as an example of how a documentary can change people’s lives:

“The film covered Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan who had previously applied for asylum to the States and been rejected. As a result of the film, a number of them managed to get asylum; we also rescued a young woman from a brothel and sent her to Canada, so it was an incredibly rewarding film for me.”

“Ad agencies make ads about products; filmmakers make films about real issues. Ads are supposed to be positive, films should have a message, but people don’t get that.”

As Obaid-Chinoy talks about her work, both her iPhones buzz and ring consistently; she stops to take every call, listens carefully and gives instructions. I query (with a light laugh) whether she enjoys being in control. Slightly piqued by the question, she responded with, “you see I am training all these people.”

Training future filmmakers is important to Obaid-Chinoy and in her opinion winning the Oscar will be a great motivator for young people who now have a reason to believe “that they too can win something like that because another Pakistani has done it.”

Clearly Obaid-Chinoy is not oblivious to what the award represents, nor is she unappreciative of the support of her fellow Pakistanis (“I always say I won because I had 180 million people backing me”), but she has learnt to put this and her other awards into perspective:

“I think awards are gratifying because they show you are making films that resonate with people and more importantly, winning amplifies the issues in the film.”

And how do you top an Oscar, if at all?

“By making more socially conscious films that inspire the next generation of filmmakers to tell a story,” comes the prompt reply.

First published in the May-June 2012 issue.


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Comments (17) Closed

Viking Star Feb 29, 2016 12:27pm

Congrats Ms. Chinoy! But its a pity that people in Pakistan only produce such stuff (against women) to get projection in the west. Its about time we try something else too - just like the rest of the world is doing.

Thoroughthinker Feb 29, 2016 01:50pm

@Viking Star : Getting colorful projections, accolades and gold by exposing our own grey areas is not a solution to our ills. We should have reformers who could identify those blistering ills and proffer solutions at the same time. Ms.Chinoy has done the identification well but, the blistering woulds still remain for someone else to come and heel.

Samad Chaudhry London Feb 29, 2016 01:56pm

Congratulations! You have made us proud!!

Truth monger Feb 29, 2016 03:06pm

Miss Chinoy I have a question..... Do you believe there is nothing positive about Pakistan to show to the world, western world specifically

Skeptic Feb 29, 2016 04:44pm

Sadly, the only time Pakistan is mentioned on world forums is for all the negatives - terrorism, intolerance, ignorance, poverty, corruption, illiteracy, sufferings , and social problems.

Is there anything this country can produce which doesn't always portrays the country in such a bad light or highlights why people like Malala had to seek refuge in England or those who are now joining the flood of refugees around Europe?? Surely, documentaries on Qaid, Iqbal or even Edhi would be appropriate to show positive side of Pakistan. Or are only the negatives about Pakistan appreciated and expected by the West, I wonder??

Harmony-1© Feb 29, 2016 04:54pm

@Viking Star - Recognising and acknowledging the issue is the first step towards correction. This documentary wasn't for Western audiences only. They get to hear 'honour killing' news daily - bad enough. This documentary at least portrays that there are people of conscience who want to bring a good change in society through awareness and with their bit of good work. We are not like those in our neighbourhood who condemn screening of a rape documentary.

Srinivasulu Mekala Feb 29, 2016 05:02pm

Ms Obaid Chinoy has forced an otherwise impossible / unimaginable but welcome bend in Pakistan's contemporary history, while herself not being an ikon, and on the contrary, being a person more hated than liked in Pakistan. Art imitates life, and now life has to imitate art. What Ms Obaid Chinoy has done is a feast specifically impossible for a Pakistani, more so for a Pakistani woman. She deserves an "International Gallantry Award for Exceptional Valour", in addition to scores of other awards. May God increase her tribe. Amen.

Asif Jamil Feb 29, 2016 05:12pm

Ms. Chinoy is a brilliant storyteller. She takes a social / human issue and tells the story. She brings it in the open. Then, it is up to the society and the authorities to put things right. Unfortunately, her work is appreciated more in the West than at home. Some of us do not want to see the sores in our society. And this is a pity. Unless an issue is discussed openly, how will it be corrected? Carry on Ms. Chinoy.

Naseer Feb 29, 2016 05:13pm

@Viking Star She is only bringing the truth out. First step to solving any problem is to recognise the problem. And you know what the top winner 'Spotlight' is about. Bravo Ms.Chinoy

Qaiser Feb 29, 2016 05:51pm

It is a very shameful act to wash your dirty laundry in the west.

SAEED KHAN Feb 29, 2016 06:10pm


Junaid Feb 29, 2016 07:32pm

@Truth monger While your questions sounds valid, but when ship is tilted to the wrong side too much then priorities change and saving the ship becomes the top priority.

Naem M. Aslam Feb 29, 2016 08:03pm

@Thoroughthinker For those criticizing Ms. Obaid-Chinoy for negativity are unaware or ignoring that some problems are bigger than an individual's capacity to solve especially social problems that most of the society has not solved for centuries. In that case to air them in Pakistan at huge personal risk is courage at its best that should be saluted not criticized so these problems are solved through awareness and combined action of government law enforcement changes in criminal law, and education. It is unrealistic to expect that an INDIVIDUAL has the means to heel these massive social ills.

Humza Feb 29, 2016 09:23pm

I never understood why she she's alleged to "portray the negative side" of Pakistan. The issue might be depressing, but it's the reality, and truth be told, it's "positive" in everyway, for it allows a dialogue and conversation to be opened up about issues we shy (or ignore) away from most.

Congrats Ms. Chinoy! You deserve it every bit.

B. Sridhar Mar 01, 2016 01:54am

@Skeptic I can see why your feelings are hurt. The Bollywood glitteratti made similar comments about the works of Satyajit Ray, Deepa Mehta et al. The world takes notice when something sensational happens, whether good or bad. For example, Mangalaayan, India's record breaking of landing equipment on Mars for a fraction of cost compared to the likes of NASA and Russian space agency is truly an achievement. That got world press coverage. But, such attainments are far and in between. On the other hand, honor killing, killing Shias, Ahmedaiyas on a regular basis is barbaric and gets world attention. Few societies in the West of such problems. Similarly, America's gun violence gets much coverage because it is barbaric. Ms. Chinoy is rendering a great service by educating and creating an awareness not just outside Pakistan but also within the country. For that she deserves gratitude and accolades.

Skeptic2 Mar 01, 2016 02:04am

@Skeptic: I second you.

Akil Akhtar Mar 01, 2016 09:08am

It is just another award given by an organisation which has been accused of bias and racism to this day......