22 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Documenting truth

Award-winning Pakistani film-maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has been regularly dishing out films that explore the lives of disadvantaged people and major social issues. Tania Bhattacharya meets the woman who is likely to walk away with her second Oscar this year

By Tania Bhattacharya
15 Jan 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • Sharmeen worked on Song of Lahore with Andy Schocken in an attempt to bring alive a fading music tradition. The film premiered at Tribeca.

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  • Song of Lahore is a powerful tribute to music and the Sachal Jazz Ensemble.

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  • She entered the world of animation with 3 Bahadur

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  • Sharmeen, seen with actor/director Fahd and her four-year-old daughter Amelia, says she wants to build a better Pakistan for her little girl.

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Seated in the courtyard of a modest home in Pakistan, Zakia Parveen pauses as she flips through photographs taken years ago. Shot in a tiny small-town studio, she looks radiant in them; beaming, with large eyes and just a hint of charming smile.

‘I used to love being photographed, especially when my mother bought me new clothes,’ she says. ‘Now I can never show my face again.’

Zakia is one of the hundreds of women in Pakistan who fall victim to vicious acid attacks every year. Unable to tolerate her husband’s alcoholism and abuse, she had asked him for a divorce, and in a fit of rage he threw battery acid on her face. The 43-year-old mother lost an eye and the entire skin on the right side of her face – it looks like crushed fabric, molten and charred in a horrific shade of nude; she hides it behind a shawl.

Zakia, who appears in the opening scene of award-winning documentary Saving Face, figures prominently throughout the film, which follows the journey of London-based Pakistani plastic surgeon Dr Mohammad Jawad as he travels across Pakistan performing reconstructive surgeries on acid attack survivors. But despite the core matter of the film, it’s remarkably strong in its tenor; where one might imagine tears, despair and the inability to survive, you see strength, spirit and the fight to live with dignity.

Producer-director-reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who made the film in association with the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan, interviewed several victims, many of whom had lost their children as well to vindictive spouses after they were attacked.

Saving Face, which went on to win an Academy Award and two Emmys, also explored a bill that was debated and passed in Pakistan’s parliament resulting in harsher punishments – 14 years to life sentences – being meted out to acid attackers. Under the new rule, Zakia’s husband was convicted and given two life sentences – the first person to be punished under the law. ‘I am overjoyed,’ Zakia says in the documentary, high-fiving Dr Jawad.

Cut to the green-and-white Swat river valley, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Surrounded by the majestic Hindu Kush range, and once considered the Switzerland of the East, its verdant beauty is now tarnished by militancy. Whole villages and towns have been shelled, forcing thousands of people, including young children, to hospitals and refugee camps in Peshawar.

Keen to document their trials, Sharmeen traversed the length and breadth of the country, stopping at hospitals, refugee camps and far-flung villages that have been reduced to rubble. The result: Children of the Taliban. In the course of the 52-minute-long documentary, she speaks to young boys and girls, army personnel and parents. She meets a boy, around 10 years old, wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life, who tells her how much he loved to play cricket; an aggrieved father who describes the region as blanketed by silence and sadness; and two teens – best friends – in a refugee camp in Peshawar. One lost a cousin in a US drone attack and is driven by revenge; the other wants to join the army to crush militants. Neither would hesitate to kill the other in battle, they proclaim.

The film won Sharmeen an Emmy for best documentary in 2010.

A native of Karachi and married to Pakistani businessman Fahd Chinoy, Sharmeen has always been in the creative realm. 
‘I started writing when I was a young girl, finding stories in Pakistan, and writing for magazines in different countries,’ says the 37-year-old film-maker, the only Pakistani to have won an Oscar. ‘Telling stories is a part of who I am.’

Today, this ability has extended from highlighting issues faced by the marginalised to the world of music as well. ‘I grew up in Karachi listening to my grandfather’s stories of our country’s musical past,’ Sharmeen explains. ‘He would often talk about the orchestras that played at concerts and the musicians who played on Sunday evenings on street corners. By the time I grew up, all of this was a thing of the past, so I lived vicariously through his stories.’

In 2011, Sharmeen came across the story of a group of musicians who had come together to record music using traditional instruments. ‘I knew that was a story I wanted to tell – and what a journey it turned out to be,’ she says.

Song of Lahore, which had its Middle Eastern premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival last month, chronicles the journey of a collective of Lahori classical musicians from the urban streets of Pakistan to the packed halls of Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York. The artists, who were once the stars of Lahore’s film and music industry, decided to reclaim music – and their lives – and the Sachal Jazz Ensemble was born.

The film is magnificent on every level – visually, musically, structurally and viscerally – and a fabulous narrative of triumph and raw talent. But it’s the group’s interpretation of the legendary Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, rendered a subcontinental sway on the sitar and tabla, that leaves you speechless. It is at the heart of the documentary – a brilliant confluence of cultures and genres and an invigorating and upbeat tribute to music that has been received with tears of joy and standing ovations the world over.

‘As a film-maker, my primary job is to begin difficult conversations so that people can start looking at issues that they may have previously ignored,’ says Sharmeen, who shuttles between the US and Pakistan, delivering talks, shooting and writing.

‘I think there’s a misconception that film-makers are meant to fix things. But I hope that by highlighting the efforts and struggles of marginalised individuals who are caught in difficult circumstances, we can bring attention to communities and a people whose voices need to be amplified.’

An alumnus of the elite Smith College in Massachusetts, US, Sharmeen completed a double master’s in communication 
and international policy studies at Stanford before embarking on a rewarding career as a documentary film-maker about 14 years ago. Apart from a long list of international prizes such as Tamgha-e-Imtiaz – a medal of distinction awarded by the state of Pakistan – and the Livingston Award for best international reporting, she is also a recipient of Hilal-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s second-highest civilian honour, for her work.

‘In October 2001, Pakistan witnessed a large influx of Afghans – a result of the war on terror. Many Afghan parents stayed back but sent their children to Pakistan, and they were left to fend for themselves. This intrigued me, so I photographed and interviewed these children, then wrote a very lengthy proposal and sent it to almost 70 organisations. I went to the funding agency at Smith, my alma mater, and they gave me a little money. Then, I wrote to the president of New York Times Television, William Abrams, and 15 minutes later he replied, asking to meet. And off I went.

‘I felt I have a unique voice because I straddle two worlds – Pakistan and the US. The stories I wanted to tell and the voices I wanted to project needed to be visual to have more of an impact.’

Sharmeen’s passion is at the root of her success – a passion for portraying the truth, giving the suppressed a voice; a passion for the greater good, and a better Pakistan for her daughter, four-year-old Amelia, as well as a passion for the moving form. She is an integral part of every project; her voice gentle and playful when talking to children, her face masking intense emotion when talking to an acid attack survivor or a man who says women should remain caged within the four walls of the home.

Has she ever feared for her safety?

‘I’ve always believed that being a woman is overwhelmingly an asset in my field more than it is a hindrance,’ Sharmeen insists. ‘I think women have a special way of navigating through Pakistan and people here have a great deal of respect for female journalists.

‘I am also able to work in communities that observe strict divisions based on gender, as I am able to speak with and film women. Being a native Pakistani also has a large role in making people comfortable – it is important for your character to trust you with their story.’

The year gone by has been something of a roller-coaster for Sharmeen. Apart from Song of Lahore, which premiered in New York and Europe earlier (and submitted for contention in the documentary feature category for the 2016 Oscars), she took two other films to the world. While A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers opened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September – it follows three Bangladeshi women deployed in Haiti as part of a UN peacekeeping mission – she also broke the norm and debuted her first work of fiction, an animation movie called 3 Bahadur (which translates as three bravehearts).

Sharmeen also submitted A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – which talks about honour killings in Pakistan and documents the story of a teenager who survives an attempted killing – to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the short subject documentary category. It’s among the 10 shortlisted nominations, and will be released this year. ‘I was thrilled to hear that the film had been shortlisted because it resonates with me deeply,’ says Sharmeen. ‘It’s a film about the kinds of choices we women have in the world and how our lives are impacted by the decisions taken by others.’ If she wins the coveted prize, it will set a new record for Pakistan – she will be the first Pakistani to win two Oscars.

Amid the success, do the difficulties, cruelties and violence weigh on her?

‘Although the subject matter is heavy, I am inspired by the subjects in my films because they represent unwavering courage and determination,’ says Sharmeen. ‘I want to tell stories from an alternative viewpoint, or question preconceived notions.’

Having said that, she enjoys watching comedy films in her spare time, because ‘I work on such serious issues that I can’t watch very serious films’.

She’s acutely aware of the power of her voice – an Oscar tends to make things easier – and has highlighted several social issues. Transgenders in Pakistan, Iraqi refugees, Canada’s aboriginal women who’ve disappeared along the ill-famed Highway 
of Tears, illegal immigrants in South Africa following violence in neighbouring countries, gang violence in Indonesia and illegal abortions in the Philippines are just a few subjects she has tackled on film.

The prolific film-maker further proved her cinematic métier with the massive success of 3 Bahadur – a superhero fantasy film that revolves around the exploits of three 11-year-olds – that became Pakistan’s highest-grossing animated film, beating 
Rio 2. ‘It is a tale of three unlikely superheroes who inculcate a sense of pride and ownership in Pakistani children,’ she says. To continue this legacy, she’s working on a sequel, which will be out in December.

In many ways, Sharmeen has already created a legacy that’s hard to match with her artistic endeavours. But more than anything else, it’s the fact that she has been able to affect a visible change that fuels her pioneering work. ‘Film-making is a 
powerful tool,’ she says. ‘A film has the power to viscerally connect its audience to its subjects and immerse them into their world completely. If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my career, it is that this form of storytelling is enough to bring about change.’

Many of her films – shot in English, subtitled where local languages are used – have been used by non-profits and activists to raise social awareness and funds. For instance, the film on Humaira Bachal, who taught 1,200 underprivileged children in her community in Karachi, attracted Madonna’s attention, and the singer helped raise funds for her to build a new school. Another, on Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, made it possible for some to be granted asylum after the film was shown.

The revival of her nation also means breeding the next class of film-makers and Sharmeen’s companies, SOC Films and Waadi Animations, do just that – by way of internships all year-round. ‘I believe it is very important to groom a new generation of directors, producers and writers who will be equipped with the skills and training to produce quality films for both Pakistani and international audiences,’ she says. ‘My team is made up of recent graduates and emerging artists who are passionate about film-making.’

Teaming up with impassioned visionaries who want to do something about the world right now gives her films a fresh perspective and immeasurable value. In this, Sharmeen not only gives voice to those hurting on the sidelines of war and patriarchy, but also to people who want to help. This can be best summed up in the words of Dr Jawad of Saving Face: ‘In a way, I’m saving my own face.’

By Tania Bhattacharya

By Tania Bhattacharya