Pakistan’s first Oscar-winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, 33, co-directed the short film Saving Face, a documentary on acid attacks on women. This year, it was awarded the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Writing about her in Time magazine, actor-activist Angelina Jolie said, “Today she (Obaid-Chinoy) is bringing the film’s message to towns and villages in Pakistan through an educational-awareness campaign.” Obaid-Chinoy is attending the Indian premiere of Saving Face at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre today, and at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on Tuesday. Ahead of her visit, she talked to us on email from Karachi, Pakistan. Edited excerpts:
You have said this is a film about hope.
Saving Face is the story of two women who survived acid attacks and had the courage to fight for justice and traverse the path to recovery. It is even more so a story of countrymen who rallied together to support these women and help them fight their battle. The film documents the passing of a landmark Bill that criminalizes acid violence in Pakistan for the first time; the group effort of survivors, lawyers and parliamentarians. Saving Face is a testament to Pakistanis that if they join forces and work towards change they can achieve outstanding results. It is an inspiring story that makes Pakistanis realize that they do, in fact, have the resources for change within their own borders.
How did you convince the two women victims to be part of your film?
Saving Face was filmed in the Saraiki belt of Punjab, a densely populated region characterized by low literacy levels and high unemployment rates. It fosters a very backward mindset and it is the region where acid attacks in Pakistan are concentrated. This backward mindset was our biggest hurdle as people were wary of my team and I. However, after spending sufficient time in the region and after establishing relations with the acid survivors, we found some brave women who wanted to step up and make their voices heard. They were ready to step out of the norm if it meant the awareness generated could save other women from the devastating crime they had suffered.
How has Pakistan responded?
The Oscar stirred an unexpected and incredible response in Pakistan. Acid violence became a national issue, and received unprecedented coverage in the media, thereby prompting a national dialogue about the issue. I received an inundation of emails from individuals and organizations that wanted to get involved and do their part to spread awareness and prompt social change; it was heartening to see such a positive response. This film successfully helped shed light on this issue and we hope that these changes gather momentum over time.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on receiving the Oscar for Saving Face.
Give a sense of the world of documentary film-making in Pakistan.
Until now there has not been much of a place for documentaries in Pakistan. However, recently there has been exponential growth in the number of private television channels that are welcoming diverse content. Cinemas have also sprung up in urban centres that are screening films other than the mainstream. Although till now most documentary film-makers have been working independently, the niche for film-makers in Pakistan is widening. Overall, documentaries in Pakistan have been focusing on isolated issues; as each issue is highlighted individually, we hope that there can be some form of collective growth.
You have earlier won an Emmy for a film on young Pakistani recruits in the Taliban. You made an award-winning documentary on the children of Afghan refugees. But you started as a journalist for the ‘Dawn’ newspaper. Why and how did this shift from print journalism to documentary films happen? What is your next documentary on?
When I graduated from college I had no film experience but I was determined to document the conditions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. I sent my proposal to 80 film companies before The New York Times gave me my first big break. I decided to switch mediums because a film effectively conveys the subject’s conditions and surroundings to its audience. It breaks all barriers and allows for an objective and exhaustive representation of the subject at hand. I am currently working on a documentary series titled Ho Yaqeen (Have Faith), which is already being aired on Pakistani television. The series highlights the outstanding work of change-makers in Pakistan who are working in their own capacity to better the conditions of their communities.
On your trip to India, who are you looking forward to meeting?
I am very excited to meet film-makers from India and to explore future collaborations. I am specifically keen to meet Kiran Rao and Ashvin Kumar, who are hosting the screenings of Saving Face with me in Mumbai and Delhi, respectively.