Beginning as a self-taught filmmaker from Pakistan, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s journey is a never-ending career milestone: moving from low-budget documentary films to helming major television episodes, she’s set to direct 2023’s biggest science fiction epic [in a N.D.A far, far away]. Never losing sight of the political disenfranchisement she felt as a young girl in Karachi, she’s used her platform to champion the fight of the marginalised around the globe, influencing law changes across Pakistan, the Philippines, and the UK. Her productive, no-nonsense approach on bringing these voices into the light has earned her a reputation as a rebel as much as an activist. It’s testament to her creativity that her political work has also been rewarded with two Academy and seven Emmy awards. Her 2015 film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness earned her both an Oscar for Best Documentary and actively changed honour killing legislation in Pakistan. A Rabbit’s Foot’s Fatima Khan spoke to Sharmeen on the relationship between film as a tool for change, her journey, and the importance of speaking candidly about the partition of the Indian subcontinent.
When did you first discover that your cinema can affect change?
The first time I realised that film is not just a medium of communication, but also something that can change the way people see issues and move the needle on the legislative front, was when I was working in the Philippines in the 2000s, on a film about access to contraceptives for women who were living in low-income areas. We saw women getting pregnant because they didn’t have access to safe abortion…they were even jumping out of their balconies. They were doing whatever they could to make sure that they did not get pregnant and in the process, many women died. We went and filmed in a backstreet abortion clinic, where some of the most unsafe practices were being adopted. Likaan [a Non-Profit Organisation] used the film to lobby the local government to think about creating a safer way for women to access not only contraceptives, but to let them get education on family planning. That was the first time I began to rethink how my films can be used to influence change. Then in 2008, we did a film in Syria about Iraqi refugees. We wanted to lobby the Ministry of Defence to bring them to the UK as asylum seekers and as people who had assisted the UK government in Iraq. And of course, my biggest win was when I made A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, about honour killings in Pakistan. There was a lacuna in the law: if a father killed his daughter, his wife or son could forgive him, and we wanted to close that lacuna. We used the film to lobby the Prime Minister’s office to get legislators to push legislation to close this loophole in the law, and our film played a pivotal role in ensuring that would happen.
You often say that you are an accidental filmmaker. Would you say that your sense of justice comes from your background as a Pakistani?
My sense of justice comes from the fact that I grew up in an environment where we were always encouraged to ask questions. Initially, I would question why girls were begging on the streets and not going to school while I was going to school; or why a young girl would be forced into marriage at a young age; or why minorities were mistreated. I was in an environment that encouraged me to ask questions and my mother—who was raising six children—would answer as many questions as possible. But she also encouraged me to write for a local newspaper and put it out there for everyone to read. That’s where I first learnt the power of having discussions about critical issues.
So you were always very curious and that led you on a journey…
Exactly. I was always very curious. I asked questions, I did a lot of research and I’m a storyteller. I started telling stories in print when I was fourteen-years-old and I continued to tell those stories in print until I went to college and 9/11 happened. Then I self-taught myself film, because at the heart of every film is storytelling and if you actually know how to tell a story, everything else falls into place. You have a cameraman to record that story, then you have a sound person to capture that, but you must have your central ethos about how to tell each story.
Your most recent works include two incredible episodes of Ms. Marvel that are set during the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent. My maternal grandfather, who lived through the Partition, had his tumultuous Olympian story told through Bani Singh’s grassroots documentary Taangh / Longing (2022). For many Pakistanis, these stories are deeply personal. Why do you feel that it is important to represent these stories to the masses? Through your works, many people are discovering about Partition for the first time—even though it was one of the largest human mass migrations, especially in recent memory.
For me, Partition is as much about leaving your home, as it is about mass migration. I have lived these stories. I have been part of them. I wanted the world to see it and experience it, and so it was important that when we were doing Ms. Marvel’s origin story, that the story of partition was woven in—in the manner that it was wrong. You felt like you were on the platforms, and you were bearing witness to snatch conversations that people were having: mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, friends. And as you walk through the platform, you look inside a carriage and you see the anguish on the faces of people who are travelling to an unknown, unfamiliar destination but carry with them the fervour of a new country. We wanted to have a soundscape where you hear the crying babies and you hear the anguish in their voices. Sometimes it’s not just pictures, but it’s the sound that carries you—the announcements of the last trains that were leaving…It was a Ms. Marvel show, but I wanted it to be very authentic.
I think that the greatest gift I feel as a filmmaker is when three gener-
ations [of people] watch it. Now my inbox is filled with people who wrote in to say that, “You know, my mother, or my grandmother, talked
about this and it felt too painful. But when we watched it. We felt this
was what Partition was like, this was the feeling that we’re seeing on
screen: these colours, these visuals…it’s what we all remember.” And I have to say that Marvel Studios is very good for giving us the resources. They allowed us to share the stories that we wanted to
tell about the people in our past.
What are the main issues we are facing as a society that need urgent addressing, particularly in Pakistan?
The world needs more empathy. We need to understand that with
eight-billion people on this planet, the fight for resources will be greater than it’s ever been. The threat to our civilization is greater today than any other generation has ever seen. We need to be cognisant of the fact that the planet cannot have more people and that we need to be together: not as this country in that country, but together as humanity. We need to have more empathy for mother nature, for this planet, and for each other. Sadly, even though Pakistan’s contribution to global emissions is less than one-percent, Pakistan is one of the top ten countries hardest hit by climate change. It’s the frontline country that’s bearing witness to what happens when the word acts selfishly.
One of the most interesting things about Pakistan as a country is that sixty-percent of the population are under the age of twenty-five. How can we move the dial collectively to support this generation?
Having sixty-percent of the population under the age of twenty-five
can be a boon or a bane. We could be creating the next generation of
thinkers, philosophers and change makers, or we could be creating the next generation of unemployed and disenfranchised youth. Sadly, I feel that our education system and our priorities are not equipping them with what’s about to come. We pay lip service to having a young
population, but we’re doing nothing to empower and educate them to
take on the world.
When this magazine goes to print, we will be in the 2023 rat race to the BAFTA and Oscar award circuit. Are there any titles that you’re excited about this year?
I am very excited about Joyland, which is Pakistan’s entry to the Academy Awards this year for the feature category. And also Farah, which is the Jordanian entry into the Academy Awards. With digital platforms, we’re watching each other’s films and we’re consuming culture, language and moving images from places of the world that we haven’t even travelled to. And those stories are touching us. Cinema can play a pivotal role in bringing people together—there has to be an understanding of each other’s issues and our shared traumas.