I am here to be free and to strive for justice
Mainstay of documentaries Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is celebrated for exhuming untold stories grounded in different parts of the world. The Academy Award and Emmy winning filmmaker has persistently advocated the legal rights of the voiceless. A graduate of the prestigious Stanford University, sheâ€™s had quite an illustrious career, beginning with â€œTerror’s Children,â€ her acclaimed debut film. In an exclusive interview, Sharmeen talks to Haider Rifaat about her vision as a storyteller, her new series on
child abuse and the Netflix short, â€œSitara: Let Girls Dreamâ€
How did your graduate programme at Stanford University enable you to emerge as an influential filmmaker?
I call myself an accidental filmmaker, because I never studied it. My education has armed me to tackle the subjects Iâ€™ve been making films on for nearly twenty years. At Stanford University, I completed my double Masters in International Policy Studies and Communication. Both degrees taught me the value of journalism and importance of geopolitics and the international players involved. I base my work on the integrity of interviewees, citing of sources, research and ethics. My stories are rooted in the principles of journalism and my graduate training has been incredibly helpful in that respect. My work is local, but itâ€™s also international. The stories I choose to tell resonate with the local citizens and concurrently engage the global community.
Describe the ethos of your films and how theyâ€™re geared to engage the audience.
Iâ€™ve made more than a dozen films outside of Pakistan. The series Iâ€™m about to launch is also from five countries. Usually the subjects that people have a hard time confronting draw my attention. I hold up a mirror to society, so people can see a reflection of themselves and those around them. I look at the issues first before evaluating their geographical relevance.
Many believe that you solely portray the dark side of Pakistan and negate the positives we have to offer. Is the criticism justified?
Iâ€™m a journalist and a filmmaker, not a publicist. My job is to unearth the truth. I seek out anomalies in a society and relate it to the judicial system. I see what ordinary people experience in their day-to-day lives; Iâ€™m not here to win popularity contests. I am here to be free and to strive for justice.
How would you assess the practice of modern-day journalism in Pakistan?
We have a few incredible journalists in Pakistan who fact check and refer to multiple sources. The commodification of news channels not only in Pakistan, but around the world has changed journalism as a profession. It has established young journalists, who are interested in making headlines and not researching news. A majority of them rely on sensationalism and hyper-nationalism to communicate stories. The new cadre of so-called journalists has threatened the job for what it stands for.
Tell us how your animated short â€œSitara: Let Girls Dream,â€ in collaboration with Gucciâ€™s â€œChime for Change,â€ will help young girls around the world.
Weâ€™re introducing an international campaign in schools in Cameroon, Pakistan and the United States to ask why parents arenâ€™t investing in their daughtersâ€™ dreams. Whatâ€™s holding them back in this day and age? â€œSitaraâ€ is a short film about a girl named Pari, who wishes to be a pilot, but society disapproves of her aspirations. Itâ€™s a starting point for parents and children to have a conversation. Weâ€™ve already screened the film in over a hundred schools around the world and plan to screen it in thousands more.
Your documentary series titled â€œAagahiâ€ encourages Pakistani women to be aware of their constitutional rights. How does the series plan to engage with conservative mindsets?
â€œAagahiâ€ has already initiated substantial change. Weâ€™ve taken the series to mobile cinemas that have travelled the length and breadth of Pakistan, going into small villages and towns across the country in over four hundred locations. Weâ€™re screening the series at the grassroots level in schools, colleges and community centers to inform people about socially relevant issues.
At Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (SOC) Films, hundreds of young women inundate us with their requests on topics we should be covering. Having Aamina Sheikh collaborate with us has been enormous too. Sheâ€™s been using her voice to spread the message of â€œAagahi.â€ This is not a campaign of creating films, but of disseminating important messages to those who need to hear them the most. At the Aurat March, many women came up to us and told us watching â€œAagahiâ€ informed them of their rights. Despite coming from a privileged class, many families cage their daughters. Thus, the series is for everybody, not just marginalised women.
I was curious to know, why youâ€™ve shifted your gear towards animation?
Iâ€™m a storyteller, so I want to test alternative mediums of storytelling, say virtual reality and animation. Iâ€™m continuing my journey in documentaries and feel that I should challenge myself persistently to utilise such mediums and tell global stories.
What other themes do you plan to tap into?
Iâ€™m working across countries trying to understand their social issues. In Brazil and the United States, income marginalises women. Similarly, Kenyan women lack access to reproductive health services. Iâ€™m exploring such themes internationally.
Whatâ€™s next for you?
A series on child abuse is underway. Thereâ€™s another international project in the pipeline as well. We also have the launch of â€œSitaraâ€ coming up.
Your project â€œFreedom Fightersâ€ made it to the World Economic Forum and the documentary â€œArmed with Forcesâ€ won an Emmy award. What positive changes do you wish to invoke with these films?
Itâ€™s necessary to show women as survivors, fighters and role models. Very few films in Pakistan have achieved that kind of impact. Our focus at SOC FILMS has shifted in the same manner. We hope to find women in Pakistan who can share their tales and help others see them as heroes and nation builders.
Speaking of freedom fighters, Kashmir is a hot topic that needs an action-oriented solution. Do you plan to make a documentary on this? Whatâ€™s the way forward according to you?
The way forward for me is what the governments of India and Pakistan decide. Iâ€™m not responsible for proposing policy changes when two countries are at the forefront of a mutual issue. As for a film, Iâ€™m unsure how Iâ€™ll achieve that, since itâ€™s quite difficult for Pakistanis to travel to Kashmir.
A grave, often overlooked, social evil in Pakistan is same-sex child abuse. Do you hope to shed some light on this?
Weâ€™ve just finished creating an animated series that deals with child abuse. Weâ€™re now focusing on a documentary that will explore the issue at length in Pakistan. As a team, weâ€™re considering the stories of young boys and girls and eyeing a system that perpetuates abuse for protecting criminals.
How do you address the male narrative in your work?
I address their narrative in all my films. Iâ€™ve had male doctors, lawyers and police officers who have facilitated women.
Looking back, how did you succeed in capturing personable moments with the victims while the cameras were rolling?
Filmmaking is about building trust with the people you work with. My team and I spend months, if not years, with the victims. It allows them to open up and disclose things they wouldnâ€™t otherwise. Mutual respect and faith are crucial components in my profession.
Your ability to mould perspectives and encourage openness in our society through storytelling must stem from a good support system at home. Who shaped you?
Iâ€™ve always had a supportive family. My parents encouraged me immensely when I began writing investigative pieces for DAWN. Itâ€™s important for young women to have their parents invest in their dreams and inspire them. I hope to inculcate that value in women around me and my family as well.