Aurora Magazine

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Living with Oscar

Published in May-Jun 2012

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, activist and filmmaker, 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.