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“My career has been defined by my ability to say ‘Why not?’”

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, CEO, SOC Films, speaks to Aurora about empowering the women of Pakistan and the passion that drives her career as a filmmaker.
Published 10 Jan, 2024 04:29pm

AURORA: What drew you to filmmaking?
SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: I became a print journalist when I was 14. I think my first published piece appeared in Dawn; by the time I was 17 I was writing cover stories and investigative pieces for Dawn’s Tuesday Review. When I was 18, I did an undercover story about how people could go to the passport office and just buy one; I basically unearthed that scandal. Then I went to college in America to study political science and economics – and then 9/11 happened. I was also writing for the newspapers there, but I felt they could not visualise the world I was writing about, and this made me think that I should do something visual. So I literally typed the word ‘visual journalism’ in a search bar, and the word ‘documentary’ popped up. I then started to binge-watch documentary films and realised that they were a visual extension of what I was already doing. When I came back to Pakistan in December 2001, everybody in America was talking about the war in Afghanistan, but no one was talking about the victims of the war; the Afghan refugee children who were flooding the streets of Pakistan – and that became the subject of my first film. I photographed and recorded their testimonies on the streets of Karachi and when I returned to America, I wrote a proposal and sent it to about 80 organisations, but I was either turned down or they did not respond. I was 22 and I had a green passport. Then I wrote to the president of The New York Times and he responded. The New York Times had just set up their TV station and they provided me with the funding and the resources to make my first film. 

A: Did you have any kind of training in documentary filmmaking?
SOC: I never trained in any kind of filmmaking. My films are instinctual. I lead by the story, by what people say and do and their body language. My filmmaking is rooted in the journalism I grew up with. From day one, one of the biggest threads running through my life and work has been empathy; the ability to walk in the shoes of other people and create that same empathy among people who do not see themselves in that story, so that they are compelled to sit and watch it and think about the fact that this could happen to them. To make people walk in the shoes of others is what best defines my filmmaking career. 

A: How do you create that empathy?
SOC: By finding the stories that resonate with people. For a major portion of my career, I focused on children and telling stories through their eyes. I have also told stories from the perspective of women and marginalised communities, but always with the lens of how we can make things better. My way of storytelling is to make people pause, and really walk in the shoes of other people. I do this by looking for connections. The world is full of issues, but who are the people fighting to create change? How do we show those issues from the perspective of the people who are trying to knock down a wall? This perspective is a powerful tool in getting people to sit up and take notice. In my films, there is always a protagonist who is doing something positive and trying to change a situation; whether it is a lawyer, a doctor, a police officer, or an activist – so that through their eyes, you see hope. You see that an issue that you thought was unsolvable can be tackled; that it is not something so huge, that you don’t even want to think about it. 

A: As a filmmaker, how difficult has it been to break through in Pakistan as well as internationally?
SOC: I am a workaholic. I am always chasing the next story; I am always innovating. I started in documentary films, then I set up the first animation studio run by a woman in Pakistan. I was the first filmmaker from Pakistan to create virtual reality films. I created a trilogy of successful animated films in Pakistan. I made the transition from documentary films to narrative with Ms. Marvel. I think my career has been defined by my ability to say “Why not?” I feel that women hold themselves back. We somehow feel we have to seek permission, and if a door does not open for us, then it was never meant to open for us. I look at things differently. For me, if a door has not opened, it means I have not kicked it hard enough. A lot of my work has been outside Pakistan. I have made 12 documentary films from Africa to the Philippines to North America. A couple of years ago, I worked with LeBron James and made a film about how African Americans are mistreated in the collegiate sporting system. That film went to Congress. We went to give testimony on Capitol Hill and the film aided in passing legislation to counter this. In 2006, I made a film that was used in the Philippines to lobby the local government to provide contraceptives to women. If I am drawn to an issue, whether it is in my backyard or it is thousands of miles away, the question is always: How do I bring my filmmaking to that issue and push the narrative forward? 

A: In that respect, would you consider yourself a Pakistani filmmaker?
SOC: I am always going to be known as a Pakistani filmmaker because I was born and raised in Pakistan. However, if you look at my body of work, in 21 years I have done more work outside of Pakistan than in Pakistan. In Pakistan, under the banner of SOC Films, we produce content that is relevant to local audiences and has nothing to do with the international work I have done. For example, we have a very robust education programme aimed at empowering young women in Pakistan. We have a school and college programme; a mobile cinema that goes from village to town. We have created a plethora of films aimed at educating women about their rights. We have created dozens of films for The National Commission for Women. Our ‘Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi’ programme creates content for school children in southern Punjab and Sindh. Our ‘White in the Flag’ project represents the largest documentation of minority rights on film in Pakistan. We run a climate change project and produced 18 animated films on the subject. All our work is focused on trying to spark some form of critical thinking among the new generation. Patakha Pictures is the largest funding and mentorship programme for women in Pakistan. In two years, we have funded 15 films and are funding another 10, and since last year we have opened up the programme to young men and are specifically targeting KPK. My goal for Patakha is to fund at least 10 films in Pakistan every year and provide sustained mentorship for six months, for which we have international mentors based out of the UK and the US. From our first cohort of Patakha Fellows, we funded five films which won 13 awards and were screened at 20 international festivals. We have opened an artist residency in Shigar called ‘Neela Asmaan’. We provide these artists the funding; this enables them to unplug for two weeks and create work. Next year, we are bringing international artists to Pakistan from the region and the Middle East to do a transfer of skills to Pakistani artists. I believe it is incumbent upon me, especially because I have had so many doors open for me, to make sure I open as many doors as possible for other people.

A: Are we talking about education in the context of educating women on dealing with various aspects of life, or in terms of learning about filmmaking?
SOC: One programme is educating young people on general life skills; for example, how to navigate Pakistan’s legal system or how young women can start their own business or stand for local elections or what to do in the event of another flood or earthquake. Civic education is lacking in Pakistan and film is a great way to bridge this gap. The second aspect is teaching people about filmmaking as a means of earning a living. For me, the most important thing, apart from education, is financial independence. A woman who is financially independent can make decisions for herself and her family. My single biggest goal now is to financially enable women in Pakistan in any way I can. 

A: How easy is it to get the women you are targeting to come and watch the films, especially when they address issues that in some cases may be viewed as controversial?
SOC: We cannot keep up with the number of people who want us to work with them. My entire career has been marked by people who think I create content that is controversial, but then my own mantra is that I am not in this world to make friends; I am in this world to create change. Our work has had an impact on both the legislative and community front, and this is what makes me determined to continue, and every time there is a pushback, I push even harder, because it means that we have ruffled some feathers and therefore we are doing something that needs to be done. 

A: How responsive is the new generation to what you are doing?
SOC: So many of the young people I have interacted with want to change the status quo. They have a very different way of looking at the world. When I started my career, there was a bit of hesitancy in terms of how do I go about achieving what I want to. With them it is more: “This is what I want, and I am going to go for it.” This really gives me hope. All the things my generation took for granted that could not be changed – well, this generation is going to be knocking down some of those walls.

A: Why are you widening your scope to include young men in the Patakha programme and why KPK?
SOC: I was inundated with requests from young men saying “What have we done to deserve the fact that you do not give us the same opportunities that you give women?” That really got to me. Of course, women are my first priority, but it made me think that some funding cycles should be open to young men. That is how it started, and we have now opened ‘Neela Asmaan’ to men. Our first two male fellows went to Shigar as part of our fall programme. As for KPK, I have a lot of affinity for the people. I made so many films there. I lived there in the early 2000s, especially in what are now called the newly merged districts and there is a lot of stigma attached to young men from the newly merged districts, and I feel Pakistanis outside that area need to see these young men and women through a fresh lens.

A: Is there a distinction within yourself between the work you create to advance a social message or idea, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy the filmmaker?
SOC: Everything we do, whether it’s under SOC Films or Patakha, has my imprint, meaning that either I have conceived the idea or shepherded it. However, it is impossible for me to create this volume of content by myself. Along the way, I have trained so many people, and by the way, the documentary films we shoot internationally are shot by Pakistanis. We recently finished a three-country film about street children’s football and my team filmed it. Two years ago, we filmed a five-country series for YouTube and worked in Brazil, Georgia, the US, Kenya and Pakistan – and the crew was an all-Pakistani one. 

A: What about films like Girl in The River? Don’t these films bring out a different kind of passion in you?
SOC: These are issue-driven films. Films like Girl in the River or Song of Lahore call for a very different way of filmmaking. You are embedded with the subject and they take years to make. Educational films are about five minutes long and have a specific purpose behind them.

A: Which ones give you the most satisfaction?
SOC: Both in different ways. For educational films, we have to go into the field, to schools and colleges and reach out to thousands of people. It is about doing something that is critical and filling a need. I just finished a programme in Balochistan, and the greatest joy I had was meeting the young women there. It reinforced how important it is to go into areas where people never go and where you may think, how could young women over there be interested in making films? Films like Girl in the River are about the ability to create something that will be globally watched and can compete with the best in the world and win. A very different kind of satisfaction comes out of it. According to The New York Times, the episode I directed for Ms. Marvel was one of the top 10 best episodes on TV in America last year. It received a lot of critical acclaim. The story focused on Partition and making an American superhero part of the Partition experience resonated and spoke to me. I brought my passion to it. 

A: What would you like to do next?
SOC: I am working on Star Wars, but I think my next goal will be to create films for cinema. I did a bit of that with Teen Bahadur, but it was animated and geared towards children. I also want to create a funding and mentorship programme that goes beyond the borders of Pakistan – take the learnings from Pakistan and create a Muslim film fund. At the heart of everything I do is the thought: How do I create change in my own country and lay the seeds for the next generations of artists and filmmakers? 

A: Is making a feature film an ambition?
SOC: Star Wars is a feature film, so yes. After I am gone I would like to be known as the conduit who opened doors for others; be they artists or filmmakers or whether it is the films we make to educate and empower. That is a real legacy. The metal statues I leave behind will be fabulous because of what they say about what a woman can achieve in this country, but far more rewarding will be what the people who will be walking my path will say.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: