Sharmeen Obaid Chinnoy: An Interview
Ideas Evolved (iE): I have to admit, I’m curious, what was your family’s response when you decided to take up filmmaking? Especially since you chose to be a documentarian?
Sharmeen Obaid Chinnoy (SOC): I have been blessed with a very supportive family. I began writing articles for local newspapers at the age of 14, and by the time I was 17 I was going undercover to report on local issues. My father stood by me since then and said, “If you speak the truth I will stand by you and so will the rest of the world.” When I switched to documentary filmmaking my parents continued to encourage me, and even push me to work harder. My husband has also played a vital role in my career; without his support and encouragement I would not be where I am today.
iE: You did your bachelors in Economics. What brought on the transition from being an Economics major to a filmmaker?
SOC: While I studied Economics and Political Science, I continued to write as a freelance journalist for various publications during my undergraduate years. However when I graduated I decided to switch mediums from writing to filmmaking as the latter is more capable of striking a chord. Film breaks all barriers between the subject and the viewer for it features the subject in its natural surroundings and allows him to speak for himself. It has the most power in terms of stirring its audience.
iE: What motivates you to make these documentaries?
SOC: I am drawn to telling the stories of marginalized communities for it is essential to provide them with a voice so that they may tell the world about their prevailing conditions. The narratives of women and children particularly resonate with me. I strive to document their stories and present them on a global platform so as to facilitate critical discourse in hopes of sparking change.
iE: Your first documentary was on the conditions of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan (Terror’s Children). Could you tell us a bit about how you went about that project?
SOC: The December before I graduated I spent some time volunteering in Afghan refugee camps in Karachi and I become motivated to document their stories. I returned to the US armed with a film proposal and petitioned 80 production companies before the New York Times television gave me my first big break. They provided me with a grant and crash course on training; I returned to Karachi and proceeded to the field to begin production.
iE: You’re the president of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan. Could you tell us a bit about the work this organisation does?
SOC: Citizens Archive of Pakistan is a cultural organization that archives the oral history of Pakistan and preserves its culture. Since we are lucky enough to have the first generation of Pakistanis in our midst I felt it was important to document their stories and record their cultures and traditions so that they may be transmitted through generations, and so that Pakistanis do not lose their identities. Till now CAP has spread to three offices in the major cities of Pakistan; we have collected the oral histories of more than 1200 individuals, and have a rich archive of photographs and videos. We recently launched the School Outreach Tour which is a group of young minds that go to underprivileged schools and educate the children in a way that is far more progressive than what their teachers are doing.
iE: Going through the CAP website, we came across the “Exchange for Change” project. How did that particular project come to be? And what’s the response so far?
SOC: Exchange for Change came about because we wanted to increase cross cultural communication on a citizen to citizen level in Pakistan. We wanted to redefine the way children imagine other communities and their respective cultures. So far we have had Exchange for Change with the United States and India. Last year children from Pakistan went to India and vice versa, and they have continued to have a year long exchange of post cards and letters. The children had unforgettable experiences and successfully built longstanding relationships in their neighboring country. This year we had an exhibition in Lahore and Karachi showcasing their experiences and exchanges and it met with a great response.
iE: You’re a Journalist, a filmmaker- an Oscar winning documentarian, an Activist. We have to ask, what drives you? And how has the journey been so far?
SOC: It is the story that inspires me but it is my subjects that motivate me to push myself, work hard and strive for success. Many of my subjects have turned out to be remarkable individuals, exhibiting courage and resilience in the face of unimagineable circumstances. I have learnt so much from them and it is their strength that propels me to bring their stories to the world’s knowledge.
iE: How does being a faculty member at SZABIST tie in with all your social work?
SOC: While I am no longer a faculty member at SZABIST, I continue to mentor some of my students. I also opened my production house, SOC Films, in Karachi late last year; some of my team members used to be media students at SZABIST. I hope to provide these aspiring filmmakers with the skills to produce quality work of international standards; and to make Pakistan’s next generation of filmmakers capable of showcasing their work on global platforms.
iE: How is the response of the youth in general regarding these often ignored issues that you’ve covered in your documentaries?
SOC: The youth of Pakistan has welcomed my work and exhibited eagerness towards learning about untapped issues. There are countless young individuals in Pakistan who are eager to learn about the art of filmmaking, and many of them are keen to go into the field to report about matters of prime concern in Pakistan. Unfortunately they are hurdled by a lack of resources and funding in Pakistan.
iE: Do you think your work has had a great impact on work done to eliminate the social problems in Pakistan?
SOC: When Saving Face won the Academy Award, acid violence became a national concern. The media began reporting incidents at a higher rate, and I received a flood of emails from individuals and organizations who wanted to financially and physically support the effort to counter acid violence. While we have a long way to go before acid violence can be eliminated, we have started a discussion around it.
iE: In an article in “The News”, Umar Cheema said that properly recognizing the achievements of our internationally acknowledged filmmakers would be instrumental in revolutionizing the Pakistani film industry. Do you agree?
SOC: I strongly agree. Locally produced work that has received international acclaim is of a standard that other filmmakers in the industry must try to meet. We must acknowledge the work of filmmakers in Pakistan so as to encourage them and other aspiring filmmakers. Once Pakistan begins producing more films and that too of high quality, it is just a matter of time before the industry’s reputation is restored.
iE: What kind of an impact were you hoping for with “Saving Face”?
SOC: Saving Face has a very powerful narrative and shows Pakistanis that although we are a nation rampant with issues, we have the resources and the courage to tackle these issues from within our own borders. It is an inspirational story that demonstrates the remarkable results that can be achieved by countrymen rallying together to support their people. I wanted to highlight the devastating and far reaching effects of acid crimes in order to facilitate discourse, but also to motivate people to take action.
iE: “Saving Face” has been received with plenty of positive feedback, but there’s been a lot of criticism, especially from Pakistan. What steps are being taken to release the documentary to the general public in Pakistan?
SOC: Daniel Junge, the co-director of Saving Face, and I have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the subjects’ safety. Due to concerns raised by some of the women in the film we have decided not to release the documentary in Pakistan.
iE: Film making is an unusual field for women in Pakistan- even women who’ve had years of experience acting or behind the camera. Looking back, how has the experience been for you?
SOC: The experience has been incredible. Being a woman filmmaker I found I have had twice as much access as a man would have. When working with female subjects they feel more comfortable working with me than they do with men, and allow me to enter their inner sanctums and learn about their lives. Had I been a woman I would have been cut off from this entire population as it is essential to learn about the subject’s environment and circumstances before filming. I have also found when working in male dominated settings in Pakistan, that men do not know how to interact with me and so they resort to treating me like a man.
iE: What platforms do you think are available for the aspiring filmmakers of Pakistan?
SOC: While there are not many resources and funds in Pakistan for aspiring filmmakers, there has been a growth in the number of platforms through which they can showcase their work. Cinema houses that screen independent work that focuses on themes other than what is mainstream are popping up in urban areas. The number of private television channels in the country has also grown exponentially, encouraging more freedom. Additionally more and more films produced in Pakistan are gaining international recognition, spreading the platform to a global level.