Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy says she does not see herself making documentaries forever — and is open to Bollywood too Image Credit: sUPPLIED

Conviction can be a much stronger motivation than just passion. This motivation, which springs from the hard and grim realities of our everyday struggles, also provides unusual courage to many women who, unable or unwilling to stomach the injustice, are playing a significant role, at great personal risk, in exposing the evil human beings do to one another.

Pakistan has been frequently called by many NGOs and experts as one of the world’s worst places for women who, reduced to mere clay figures in the hands of men, can be treated in the most depraved and inhuman manner. A woman, unable to come to terms either with her husband or his family, can be mercilessly beaten or, worse still, have her face and body disfigured with deadly acids thrown at her.

But Pakistan, which has for decades been in the news for all the wrong reasons, has also produced men and women who despite risks to life and limb have defied and drawn attention to the plight of those who suffer in silence. This is illustrated by the recent case of teenage girl Nobel Peace laureate, Malala Yousafzai, who defied gun-toting extremists opposed to girls’ education, and got shot in the head.

But there are also others who have been doing their bit in highlighting the atrocities committed against women.

Karachi-born Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a journalist/film-maker who has even bagged an Oscar — Pakistan’s first — award for her 2012 documentary called “Saving Face”, exposed the horrors that survivors of acid violence face in Pakistan. “Saving Face” follows plastic surgeon Dr Mohammad Jawad and two female victims of brutal acid attacks through the challenges surrounding the painful and horrifying abuse that affects at least 150 women in Pakistan every year.

Obaid Chinoy, who has been telling the stories of marginalised communities since the age of 14, was recently conferred the New York-based Asia Society’s Asia Game Changer Award, recognising her immense contribution to create a better future for the people of Asia and the world.

By bringing typically unheard voices to the forefront, Obaid-Chinoy has often helped bring about change in these communities. Her award-winning films made in more than 10 countries around the world have won several Emmys and other awards along the way. Her moving presentation about abuses in society prompted Oscar-winning Hollywood star Angelina Jolie to remark: “I dare anyone to watch this film (Saving Face) and not be moved to tears and inspired into action.”

Obaid-Chinoy, who holds Pakistani and Canadian nationality and lives in the US with husband Fahd Chinoy, a banker, and daughter Amelia, visited refugee camps in Pakistan in December 2001 and returned to the US with a documentary proposal in hand. At the age of 22, with no prior experience, she sent letters to 80 news companies and organisations in the US, and was declined by all of them. However, a small window of opportunity opened when Bill Abrams, the president of New York Times Television, gave her the big break. She returned to Pakistan to produce Terror’s Children.

For 10 weeks she followed eight children forced out of their homes in war-torn Afghanistan as they resurfaced in Karachi refugee camps, religious schools and scavenger enclaves near garbage dumps.

Meanwhile, accolades kept pouring in: besides “Saving Face”, Obaid-Chinoy’s recent films include “Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret” and “Pakistan’s Taliban Generation”, which was the recipient of the Alfred I Dupont Award as well as The Association for International Broadcasting award.

In May 2012, from more than 4,300 entries in 10 categories, Obaid-Chinoy’s film, “Transgenders — Pakistan’s Open Secret” won the Platinum Remi Award at the 45th WorldFest Film Festival.

In December 2012, “Saving Face” won the Best Short Film Award at the 28th annual IDA Documentary Awards; she was also voted one of the top five millennial women who have been fighting against domestic and societal violence. “Saving Face” also received the Julian-Bartel Award and the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival Audience Choice Award.

Retracing her interest in filmmaking, she tells Weekend Review that as a 20 year old she wrote an investigative cover story called “Party to a crime” — “on Thursday, March 25, 1999”, she remembers the exact date — for Pakistan’s daily Dawn.

“I had gone undercover to speak to teenagers who were being kidnapped, tortured and harassed by gun-toting sons of wealthy feudal lords. No one had spoken out so openly about this before and as I later learnt everyone was discussing the piece including those I had ousted,” she says.

Three days later, on a national holiday, her father had been out in the morning to the local mosque to pray. “‘Where is Sharmeen?’ was the voice I heard echoing through the house a few minutes after he left. He was literally shaking with anger. My name had been spray-painted with unmentionable profanities across several neighbourhoods 10 kilometres around our house. They were trying to scare my family and send a message to me,” she recalls, apparently, referring to those who had taken offense at her expose.

For a young Muslim Pakistani girl to get such a threat was unheard off. “I expected to be banned from writing or, at the very least, be grounded. But my father looked at me and said: ‘If you speak the truth, I will always support you and so will the world.’”

The paternal endorsement encouraged her; in 2001 she shifted her focus from writing to filmmaking. “My interest in documentaries was sparked in 2001 when the tragic events (terrorist attacks on World Trade Center) of September 11 shifted the world’s focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shortly thereafter, I made my first film, ‘Terror’s Children’, narrating the story of Afghan refugee children living in Karachi,” she explains. That experience taught her that films are a medium to reveal not only the “soul of each person you see onscreen, but also the core of an issue that might, otherwise, be seen as a mere headline or statistic”.

Indeed, that conviction has guided her career as a filmmaker.

But then came what would be hailed as her tour de force: “Saving Face” touched a raw Pakistani nerve as it exposed the horrors that women face in Pakistan. Inspired by the fate of one victim called Zakia, Obaid-Chinoy was resolved to expose the horror of women whose faces and bodies were disfigured by deadly acids thrown at them by men and their relatives.

Asked if she was not afraid of tackling this subject, which possibly put her life and limb in danger, she responds: “Pakistan is now, officially, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to work in. Colleagues are routinely picked up by authorities, beaten and simply killed off. But being a woman is overwhelmingly an asset in my field more than it is a hindrance. I am alive today because I am a woman. As a woman who has been fortunate enough to enjoy certain liberties, it alarms me that many women around the world are not even awarded basic human rights.”

Blaming the acid violence phenomenon on man’s insecurity, she admits that there were times during the course of shooting “Saving Face” — the film was shot in Pakistani’s Seraiki belt, a rural agrarian region with the country’s highest unemployment and lowest literacy, with some believing that there is nothing morally wrong in perpetrating acid violence — when she was emotionally overwhelmed; however, the story of Zakia, who was attacked by her husband when she asked him for a divorce, was a great inspiration.

“Zakia took the brave step of pressing charges against her husband and took the risk of moving out of his home with her daughter and son. Aided by her children, Zakia underwent treatment and fought her court case simultaneously. Her resolve when facing such unimaginable circumstances motivated me both as a filmmaker and as a mother,” Obaid-Chinoy observes.

With their lives destroyed as a result of the physical scars, the victims are not allowed to leave their homes, depriving them of an education or employment, and making them dependent on their husbands and in-laws for financial support.

Had her film contributed to changing Pakistani society?

“ ... we are coming together as a society to reject such acts. A perfect example of this is the fact that now the Punjab government, which is a provincial government, has made acid crime an antiterrorism crime — there would now be special courts set up and there would be speedy justice dispensed. Punjab is a province where the maximum number of acid-violence cases are taking place,” she says.

Her future plans include making commercial films which are a different genre from documentary films.

“I don’t see myself making documentaries forever. I am now working on an animated feature film for children called ‘3 Bahadur’ — this promises to be Pakistan’s first animated feature. It is replete with all of the makings of a blockbuster entertainment piece — menacing villains, unlikely heroes, fumbling sidekicks and a solid dose of humour, triumph and tragedy,” she says.

Would she not like to someday consider making a film in Bollywood which many aspiring Pakistani actors, film makers and artistes are now trying to enter? Besides, Bollywood has many women filmmakers, not to mention overseas-based filmmakers such as Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, etc who have tackled offbeat themes.

“Definitely! If the right project comes along. I would love to do a collaborative film with Indian talent. Unlike Indian cinema which has solidified its place in the global arena, Pakistan is now witnessing the rebirth of its film industry. Film is possibly the most powerful tool in creating an understanding between the two nations. If used correctly, these films can allow us to experience each other’s country, see our similarities and understand our differences without having to leave the comfort of our homes. It connects audiences, prompts dialogue, and initiates social change — film is oftentimes just the first step in a much vaster and fruitful conversation. Given Pakistan and India’s shared history and entrenched culture, I would love to explore an issue that we have in common and compare narratives from both sides of the border,” she muses.

Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.