April issue 2012
Interview: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy
Q: Given that the documentary is such a neglected genre in Pakistan, do you think this Oscar win will help raise the profile of documentaries at home and more funding will be forthcoming locally?
A: I certainly hope so! Finding sources for funding is arguably the toughest part of making films in Pakistan – and this is true for documentaries, animations and live action fiction films. For fiction films, many filmmakers are compelled to partner with multinationals and phone companies which is why we have awkward product placement – while animation houses make their money from product-driven content. Documentaries are mostly funded by the TV channels that produce them, but small budgets and tight deadlines often restrict filmmakers and severely impact the films’ quality. While the Oscar cannot bring about a change in and of itself, it can raise interest in documentary films with Pakistani audiences. Whether that translates into more opportunities for documentary filmmakers in the country remains to be seen.
Q: How effective a medium is the documentary for Pakistani audiences vis-à-vis getting a message across, and in bringing about a change in perception/attitudes?
A: Film, in general, is a very visceral form of communication; the nuanced story-telling, the fusion of visuals with sound and the ability to give a detailed depiction of the reality on the ground makes for a very descriptive portrayal of a situation. In terms of Saving Face, I believe that Zakia and Rukhsana’s personal journeys will effectively illustrate a crime that we have previously only known through one-dimensional forms of media. By placing the crime within a larger human narrative, I believe that a film of this nature will push audiences to reexamine previously held assumptions about acid violence and will motivate them to get involved.
Q: All of your films are commissioned and financed by western news organisations (Channel 4, Al Jazeera, HBO etc) and as you have said in interviews, they help in communicating Pakistan to the world. Do you think documentaries can play a role in fostering communication in Pakistan, between Pakistanis, so we are able to understand ourselves and each other better? In that context, can we look forward to watching Saving Face in Pakistan, in Urdu?
A: Absolutely, Pakistan is a nation of storytellers; we love to share our histories and revel in our folk tales. Saving Face is shot primarily in Urdu, and will be aired in Pakistan with subtitles later this year. Our primary aim before releasing it in Pakistan is to ensure that our subjects are safe, and in protected environments. Once we have achieved this, we will be sure to make it available to local audiences.
Q: You’ve worked in many international environments such as East Timor, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and you referred to South Africa and Zimbabwe as particularly treacherous. What has it been like to work in these countries/environments as a woman? Have they been hostile?
A: As a journalist, I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to report from a variety of countries. Each film came with its own set of challenges, with some countries proving to be more difficult than others. My experiences while shooting the underground women’s movement in Saudi Arabia were particularly interesting. We were always being watched, were unable to move about freely and were often unable to do the simplest of things on our own; at one point we were unable to check into a hotel because we were not escorted by a male representative. My all-female crew and I soon realised that our film was equally documenting our own struggles while shooting, as it was exploring the women’s movement!
Q: Although you are no stranger to awards, an Oscar is unarguably ‘the’ award. How do you think it will impact you and your work personally and professionally?
A: Winning an Oscar has been an incredibly humbling experience; the outpouring of support and good wishes from all over the world has blown me away. It was a privilege to represent Pakistan on such a prestigious platform and I hope that this prompts many aspiring filmmakers to pursue their dreams. I look forward to watching many more Pakistanis walking the red carpet in the near future.
Q: You said that when you first started working on the film, you really struggled with the idea that Pakistan could produce women like Zakia and Rukhsana as well as yourself, your realities being so different. You also mentioned that for you professionally, being a woman in Pakistan is an asset (“I’m not a threat as a woman.”) – and I couldn’t agree with you more but with a caveat: being a woman of a particular background. Do you really believe that all women in Pakistan are as empowered?
A: Privilege comes in many forms; one’s class, education, the language they speak, even the way one looks can dictate their place and position in society. I am cognisant of the fact that variance exists in Pakistan and by no means assume that all Pakistani women enjoy an equal amount of opportunity and empowerment. Although such a situation would be incredible, it is also naïve and short-sighted. Empowerment is a complicated ideal to be working towards, because successful programming has to be culturally, historically and practically constructed. Zakia and Rukhsana are proof of the fact that empowerment is not simply dictated by privilege, and that other factors, such as the power of the collective, are avenues that we as a community should look into as well.
Q: While there has been much joy and celebration about your win in Pakistan, there are those who have criticised you for “making a career out of trashing Pakistan.” How do you respond to that?
A: Throughout my career, I have been drawn to stories that make people uncomfortable because they represent unpalatable realities in Pakistan. As a journalist, I feel that it is my responsibility to highlight and project these issues, as awareness is always the first step in building towards a solution. My films reflect the complex and tough problems that Pakistan faces today, and I firmly believe that it is in our best interest to accept and address these issues instead of choosing to remain in the dark.
Q: On the night of the Oscars, you tweeted that so many people came up to you during the after-party and said wonderful things about Pakistan, for example “Jinnah would have been proud.” What are some of the other wonderful things people said to you, and who were the people who said them?
A: After our award was announced, I was met by a number of people who spoke very highly of Pakistan and expressed happiness at the fact that our films were being recognised internationally. I met Angelia Jolie and Brad Pitt backstage and they spoke very highly of Pakistan, and were very interested in watching the film. I had similar encounters with many people at the awards and was happy to see such positive remarks made about Pakistan.
Q: I want to ask you about another project you are involved in, the Citizens Archive of Pakistan. How does that link up with your film-making; if at all? You said in an interview that you hope to make a film about the people of Partition. Is the project a way of doing research for that film, and will that be your magnum opus?
A: The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to archiving and documenting Pakistan’s rich history and cultural tradition. We collect oral histories, old images and rare footage from partition to the current day. This content is then used in our educational programmes as well as in a number of multimedia exhibitions annually. My work with CAP exists independent of my film career, though I am admittedly attracted to stories from partition. I feel that it is imperative to know these stories so that we are aware of where we have come from, so that we feel a sense of ownership towards where we are going. Making a film about partition would be an incredible experience, but it would not be related to my work with CAP.
Q: You have also said that you would like to make a film on Robert Mugabe? Do you feel any closer to these goals post-Oscar?
A: The Oscar has opened a variety of doors for me, and I feel that I am now able to access wider networks and have more resources available to me. Beyond that, only time will tell.
Q: Tell me about the animated series on heroes that you are working on for Pakistani children? Will this series feature people like Zakia and Dr Jawad?
A: Our animated series is a work of fiction, so it will not feature people like Zakia or Dr Jawad, but it will promote ideals that are present in their characters, such as the pursuit of justice and a deep sense of patriotism. The project is still in the preproduction phase, and it has been created exclusively for Pakistani audiences.
Q: You are married and have a young daughter. How do you balance your personal and professional lives?
A: I have been lucky to have an extremely supportive family that has motivated me to work harder and never compromise my career. Were it not for them, I would never have reached where I am today. My daughter is my biggest inspiration; I want the Pakistan she inherits to be far better than the one I live in today.
This interview was originally published in the April 2012 issue of Newsline.