Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is like a rivulet flowing endlessly in the middle of a drought-ridden Sahara, or like a triumphant roar of parrots popping across a sky when all youâ€™ve known are crows. In short, sheâ€™s a marvel for Pakistan. A journalist turned filmmaker, Sharmeen is the winner of both a prestigious Academy Award and an Emmy, a first for Pakistan, for her heartwrenching documentary Saving Face in 2012. Since then, itâ€™s been a rollercoaster ride for her. Iman Zia catches up with the trailblazer, whoâ€™s currently promoting her first feature film Song Of Lahore that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival 2015, New York City and is Golden Globe nominated and has been shortlisted for the Academy Awards 2016.
First and foremost, congratulations on A Girl in the River: The Price Of Forgiveness being shortlisted for the Documentary Short Subject Category. How does it feel to be nominated once again?
I was exhilarated to hear that A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness was shortlisted for the Oscars! The film resonates with me deeply. Itâ€™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.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker? Who is your favourite director?
I became a documentary filmmaker because I wanted to make socially conscious films. I deeply admire James Longleyâ€™s film Iraq In Fragments. Shot, directed and edited beautifully, this film tells the story of Iraq during the conflict in a unique and awe inspiring manner. It humanises a conflict by telling an alternative story than the one that we have grown used to; one in which things are more complex than the basic good guy bad guy binary. I was impressed by the honesty and integrity in the film, and was inspired by the treatment of the Iraq war in it.
â€œNever take no for an answer and if a door hasn’t opened up for you it’s because you haven’t knocked hard enough on itâ€
Weâ€™ve been noticing a quiet revival in Pakistani cinema, what with films like Moor, and Manto. Where do you see Pakistani Cinema in the next ten years? Â
The Pakistani film industry is slowly beginning to stand on its own two feet again. Filmmakers are experimenting with style and form and we are slowly starting to carve out a place for ourselves in the international sphere. I can only see Pakistani cinema rising from here on!
Youâ€™re an extraordinary documentary maker focusing on social issues. are there any other genres youâ€™d love to venture into?
I released an animated feature film, 3 Bahadur, for Pakistani children earlier this year and am developing a number of other animated films.
Being a voice to those suffering in the dark is incredibly admirable. Thatâ€™s your mission after all, to help the voiceless. As a society we often choose not to act against taboos and problems that stare us right in the face. How important do you feel it is to raise social awareness in Pakistan?
Conversations in Pakistan, whether they are occurring in the drawing room or in the parliament, are almost exclusively about politics. We have to own up to our shortcomings as a nation and we have to have these uncomfortable conversations â€“ only then can we begin to make a change.
Could you tell us a little about your upcoming projects: A Girl in the River: The Price Of Forgiveness and Song Of Lahore?
More than a thousand women are killed in the name of â€œhonourâ€ in Pakistan every year. The vast majority of victims are women attacked by family members. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness follows the story of eighteen-year-old Saba, a rare survivor who falls in love and lives to tell the tale.
Song of Lahore was my first feature length documentary. It recently opened in cinemas in the U.S. It documents the struggle of musicians in Pakistan to keep their traditions alive in the face of rising opposition to music and the arts in this country. We follow the journey of Sachal Studios from obscurity in their native Lahore to a triumphant performance in New York with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra.
â€œI feel extremely honoured to be able to provide the silenced with a voice and make their stories heard by others throughout the worldâ€
How powerful a tool do you see cinema as, especially in a country veiled by so many social issues like Pakistan? How important do you see filmmaking as remoulding peoplesâ€™ perceptions?
Iâ€™ve always been interested in topics about human rights and womenâ€™s issues that many people find controversial. I choose film subjects that spark difficult conversations and make people uncomfortable. Change only comes about when people are forced to discuss an issue, and thatâ€™s what I hope my films do by highlighting the issue.
What philosophical quote/mantra do you live by?
Never take no for an answer and if a door hasnâ€™t opened up for you itâ€™s because you havenâ€™t knocked hard enough on it.
Youâ€™ve witnessed so much; sheer brutality and pain when filming. How do you take your mind off such devastation? How do you keep a tab on emotions?
During filming, there have been many times when I have felt overwhelmed by the atrocities around me but I find hope in my subjects. I am inspired by their resilience it instils me with a sense of purpose. I feel extremely honoured to be able to provide the silenced with a voice and make their stories heard by others throughout the world.