Ava DuVernay. Liz Garbus. Hana and Samira Makhmalbaf. There’s a growing list of socially-motivated female auteurs out there championing change for every man, woman and child whose voice has been stifled or just forgotten. Maybe the most headline-grabbing of all has been Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. A documentary filmmaker with enough grit and gusto to tackle everything from xenophobia to gang violence, and her latest Oscar-winning subject, honour killings. And she’s not stopping there. MC, editor.
Tell us about what led you to storytelling and filmmaking. And what made you realise that these were the kinds of stories you wanted to tell?
My interest in documentary filmmaking and narrative based storytelling was sparked in 2001, when the tragic events of September 11th shifted the world’s focus to Aghanistan and Pakistan. I was a print journalist at the time, and had had the privilege of growing up in Karachi, and being educated in the United States. As someone who could successfully understand both worlds, I thought that I could play a constructive role in relaying information from the East to the West. Documentary filmmaking was an organic shift in terms of the content that I was trying to capture; film has a way of bridging differences and providing visceral accounts of situations that may seem foreign or unimaginable in print.
Shortly after that, I made my first film, ‘Terror’s Children’, which was about Afghan refugee children living in Karachi. That experience taught me that there’s always more to the story than what makes it to the evening news, or what graces our headlines the next day, and that those stories are the ones that need to be explored in order for us to understand conflict as a social and real thing, rather than an abstract idea. This sentiment has guided my career as a filmmaker, and has established a theme of sorts; I go after stories that give a voice to people who aren’t usually given the opportunity to speak for themselves.
If you weren’t telling stories, what do you think you would be doing?
Pakistan faces a variety of pressing concerns; a weakened state has resulted in rising radicalism, mismanagement of resources and a shrinking middle class. If I hadn’t gone into journalism or filmmaking I would’ve liked to go into education. Telling stories has always been a natural desire for me but if my career trajectory had been different, the desire to change mindsets and cultivate the potential of our youth would have continued to be central to my work.
You’ve made documentaries all over the world, on a wide range of subjects, though nearly all about injustice in some form. When you find a subject that fires your passion, what are the next steps? How do you go about making these films a reality?
I’m always looking to bring the stories of marginalized communities to the forefront, and I feel strongly about making these narratives accessible to a larger audience. Sometimes I’m inspired by something as simple as reading a news article or having a short conversation with someone. From there I think about how I want to tell their story. My work strives to capture an alternative viewpoint, or question preconceived notions, so a lot of research goes into any project I undertake.
You can come from anywhere and still have hard work and the pursuit of excellence appreciated at the highest levels.
In an interview with Vogue, you said “If you look at Malala, she’s very outspoken. Of course she’s had many setbacks because she’s so outspoken, and I too have had many setbacks because I’m outspoken.” How do you deal with the challenges and roadblocks that are put in your way? And who – or what – do you credit for your strength of will?
My father told me that as long as I spoke the truth, he would stand with me – and so would the world. I have followed that motto with conviction and it has helped me overcome obstacles most men could not even fathom. I always set the facts straight and back my actions with evidence, which always maintains fairness regardless of ones gender. I won’t say that I’ve had to face any hurdle as such during the progression of my career. Over the last few years, there has definitely been a rise in expectation but this has been met with an even greater increase in opportunities. I think people trust my ability to tell socially relevant stories and this has given me a lot more access to marginalized communities.
After seeing your documentary A Girl in the River, Pakistan’s Prime Minister has vowed to change the law, so murderers can no longer be ‘forgiven’ by family members (and thus escape justice). This is a massive impact that can be directly attributed to your work. What other direct changes have come about, through your films?
Many of my documentaries have told the stories of the real heroes of Pakistan; educationalists, women’s rights activists, men and women who are rebuilding their communities and trying to write a different narrative for the future generation of this country.
Every day, more and more women are being treated as second-class citizens but the passing of the Women’s Protection Act is a monumental step in sending out a strong message that the Pakistani Government will not stand for the mistreatment of its women – it is high time that women’s rights are prioritized and protected. In a Joint session of Parliament earlier this year, the anti-honour killing and anti-rape bills were unanimously passed. The film helped bring new attention to issues that advocates had been working on for years – this is a victory for all of us and it reaffirms my belief that this form of storytelling is enough to bring about change.
What skills or traits would you say are fundamental for an aspiring filmmaker or storyteller?
Never take no for an answer – use whatever resources are available to you and continue to practice and persevere. Whether it’s using your cellphone instead of a fancy camera, or submitting a short film to a local festival, do the best with what you have. Spend time learning and perfecting your craft, and don’t let your ego get the best of you. Never say no to a potential opportunity – you never know where it may lead you.
You’re a two-time Emmy winner, recently received your second Oscar for ‘Best Documentary Short’ and Time magazine named you one of the ‘100 most influential people in the world’. Is this something you ever planned for? And how do you feel about the acclaim?
These recognitions reinforce the fact that you can come from anywhere and still have hard work and the pursuit of excellence in your work appreciated at the highest levels. I’m humbled and honoured that my work has received such acclaim. What I planned for was to use film as a vehicle for social change and to work hard to bring about this change. I’m extremely grateful to have received such international support.
Who would you say inspires you the most and why?
My father is my biggest inspiration. He was a self-made man in textiles – a very hardworking man, and father of six children, five girls and one son. He dropped out of college and started his own business, which did extremely well. He taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to!
What are you working on now? Any ‘dream projects’ you would like to one day realise?
I’m currently working on an animated feature film, which is a sequel to 3 Bahadur. I’d like to make a film about the life of General Zia, a military dictator who is hailed as the catalyst for Pakistan’s shift towards Islamization. General Zia’s rule is mired in controversy and ambiguity, and his story has all the right ingredients for a captivating film.
“Titles mean nothing. You don’t have to have all the lingo, or all the friends. It’s what you’re doing and how much it adds up to.” – Sophia Amoruso. Do you have any tips for aspiring storytellers on how to channel their creativity into making work that matters, work that inspires change?
For any storyteller it’s a matter of finding a story that excites you and then telling it in a manner that is honest and distinct.
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