By Anna Weinstein.
Documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy made history in 2012 when she became the first Pakistani to win an Oscar for her documentary Saving Face. She won an Emmy for her 2010 documentary Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, and to date she has made more than a dozen films in more than ten countries. Her work centers on women’s issues and human rights, and last spring she joined prominent international female personalities including Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep at the Women in the World Summit in New York. Obaid-Chinoy’s 2010 TED Talk, Inside a School for Suicide Bombers, has close to a million views, and in 2012, Time Magazine included her on its list of 100 Most Influential People in the World. Obaid-Chinoy spoke with Anna Weinstein about her career, her upbringing in Pakistan, and her mentors.
Anna Weinstein: How did you get started making documentaries? I understand you were a writer before you became a filmmaker?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Right, I started writing when I was fourteen, finding stories in Pakistan, and writing for magazines in the English-speaking countries. So I had a strong portfolio by the time I went to college, at Smith. But I started looking for another medium my senior year. I started to feel that writing was one-dimensional.
That’s interesting. How so?
I guess I thought that if my readers weren’t familiar with the people, the nuances of where I came from or where I was writing about, then we’d never really find peace for these people. They’d never really understand their perspective. So in October 2001, we saw this exodus from Afghanistan into Pakistan, in driving the Taliban out. And a lot of parents stayed behind and sent their children, and I thought it would be an incredible insight into the war in Afghanistan, seeing the children who were uprooted and sent to another country where they were supporting themselves. So I went and took photographs and interviewed them. And when I went back to the U.S., I wrote a lengthy proposal and sent it off to backers, to organizations, anyone I could think of. And I waited to hear back about who would fund my documentary. Of course, nobody did.
How many places did you send to?
Oh I don’t know. I started getting rejection letters – maybe 70, I think. And then I went to the funding agency at Smith, and they gave me a little bit of money. And then one day, I was searching for something on the New York Times website, and I read that they’d recently branched into television. So I found out who the president was, the president of that division, which was the Discovery Channel – and his name was William Abrams. So I wrote to him and talked about the proposal, and fifteen minutes later he emailed me back and said, are you willing to come and meet with us? And off I went.
Fifteen minutes later?
So was it 9/11 that triggered your interest in filmmaking then?
Oh yes, it was. It was a response to 9/11, for sure, because I felt there was a lot of news coming from my part of the world. There were a lot of documentaries that had been slapped together without real insider perspective about what was happening – perspective about why it was happening. And I felt that I came from that part of the world and received an education in the West, so maybe I could bridge that gap. I thought we needed someone who understood the people and the culture and the religion – who understood what dictated the narrative over there.
How common was it for girls in Pakistan to go to university in the States? Were you different from your peers in that way?
Oh, no. I went to a high school in Pakistan – simply one of the best in Asia. About 60 to 70% percent of my class went to university around the world, whether to Australia, the U.K., the U.S., or Asian universities. So the school I came from came from had a rich history of people going to college in the West.
Were your parents educated? What did they do for a living when you were growing up?
Well, my mother was a stay-home mother, and she ran a school for orphans for a good number of years – but she was home a lot. And my father was a self-made man in textiles. He dropped out of college and started his own business and did extremely well – a very hardworking man, and father of six children, five girls and one son. But education was very important in our family, and sports too. All of us played competitive sports. So we had a history in our family, encouraging us to play sports, study hard, make something out of ourselves.
Do most parents in Pakistan encourage their daughters like that, or were your parents unique that way?
I’ll tell you, my father always called us his sons, never his daughters. In my language, this is what he would say – and it’s very rare for a father to refer to his daughters as his sons. But my father did. So from a very early age, he instilled in us this attitude that we could do anything.
So that was a compliment? An honor?
Oh yes. I call my daughter this now, too – refer to her as my son. But my brother didn’t come along until I was a junior in college, so it was just five girls in the house – and with my mother, there were six women in the house. So you know, we grew up in an all-girls kind of environment. And then all my sisters went off to the West for education. We all went to all-women colleges. So we’re very big on women’s issues in our house.
Fascinating. And how did that come about? Would you say that’s more from your father or your mother, or both?
Well, very early on, my mother decided that we wouldn’t have the same fate that she had. She got married at that age of seventeen. And she really wanted to be a journalist or a writer, but she was extremely beautiful, and my grandfather used to worry – there’d be all these young men lurking around the house. So he got her married off very young. So she was determined that her girls would not have that life. She talked with my father a lot about sending us to college, and finally my father relented. He wanted us to get an education, but he wanted us to stay in Pakistan. He was a very emotional man, the kind of man who couldn’t live without speaking to his daughters. So he was like, there’s no way I’m sending them to America. And my mother was like, well, that’s the best education, so they’re going whether you like it or not.
Oh, so your mother was a very strong woman then.
Extremely strong. Very, very strong. Very, very stubborn. But by the time she was twenty-four, she already had four girls, so it’s not easy to do that – especially in an environment where having four girls was really an anomaly. You know, the mindset was . . . well, there’s no son, you know.
And what does your mother think about your career now?
Oh, she absolutely loves it. My mother has pushed all of us to get careers. It’s very rare for women in this country to run a business. And my sisters, after my father died, they took over the company. It’s very rare for that to happen. And you know the impact – they got married and are having babies. Most women give up by the time they get married. They don’t work anymore. Very, very few. In fact, I think out of all my friends, maybe only one or two work with children. Everybody else has given up. So my mother, she’s the kind of person who will say, okay, you’re busy. What can I do to make it easier for you? So for example, I don’t ever have time to buy clothes. I never have time to get things cooked. I never have time to run around and do errands for my daughter, and neither do any of my sisters, so my mother does that a lot of the time.
That’s pretty amazing. And you all live in the same city?
We all live in the same city, yes, in Karachi. We all live within ten minutes of each other.
So how tough is it to be a female filmmaker in Pakistan? What does the industry look like today?
When I started making films in 2002, there was no film industry in Pakistan. We had a vibrant film industry in the 1950s and ‘60s and ‘70s, and then General Zia came to power, and he completely disabled that industry. And after that, it never really got back on its feet. When I started making documentary films, there were a few females making soap operas, women directing them – and they were successful. And now I’ve been making films for well over fifteen years. So now we have a number of women producing and directing soap operas, a few women directing feature film. But it’s still rare to have women making documentaries.
Do you think you bring a unique perspective as a female filmmaker in Pakistan?
Oh sure, I think being a woman gives me a unique perspective into communities, whether I film in Pakistan or in other countries. I’m making a film in Haiti right now. But mostly, I think my unique perspective is because I look for things that other people aren’t looking at. This probably comes from my curiosity as a child. I was an angry young woman. I used to get very angry when I’d see things that I thought were wrong or unjust. So that kind of carried with me throughout my life. And the topics I choose now, they’re the kind of things people don’t want to talk about – they don’t want to shed light on these topics, or people are afraid or just not comfortable with them, or maybe not even aware of them.
Your work has been described as courageous and brave. Do you ever feel any sense of danger or threat to your life?
Oh, of course. I think that people who shake the status quo, people who question, people who are a pain in the neck, they’re always in danger, especially if they live in a society that isn’t comfortable highlighting those issues. So yes, of course. There’s a certain amount of danger that comes with living in Pakistan, with tackling the kinds of issues I tackle. But then again, I’m a fatalistic person. I believe very strongly that you could be anywhere in the world doing something, and if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, then something could happen to you. So I really don’t think about the danger involved with what I do or say. I do think about what would happen if I didn’t say those things, though – if I didn’t tell those stories.
Do you mean the impact you’re able to have by sharing these stories? What would happen if you didn’t?
No, I think I mean that I would slowly die inside, that I’d rather die knowing that I tried my best to shake things up and to somehow get people to look into their souls and say, why is this happening on my watch? I’d rather go that way than silently succumbing to a society that forces me to conform.
How old is your daughter?
She’s four, and I’m expecting another daughter. I’m due at the end of February.
Oh, congratulations! So I guess your daughter can’t watch your films yet?
She doesn’t, but she knows her mother won an Oscar Award, as she says. And she often picks up the paper and says, oh look, momma’s in the the newspaper. So her norm is that her mother is in the public eye. But you know, there are sacrifices one makes. I work a lot, I travel a lot, and I’m often not there when I need to be. Of course, it’s not easy on her, because very few of the other mothers have that kind of life. But as my mother told me, she said, your child’s norm is what she’s accustomed to. So if she’s accustomed to having a working mother, she’ll never know what it feels like not to have a working mother. She doesn’t know what she’s missing out on, because she’s never been exposed to that. So you continue doing what you want to do – and as long as you’re happy doing it, then your daughter will learn from that and become the person she must become.
As a female filmmaker, do you feel any responsibility to represent women in your films?
Absolutely. A lot of my films are about women – whether it’s strong women who are fighting the status quo, or women who are being pressured to conform in some way. I mean, there are very few times women are given the opportunity to tell their story in my part of the world. It’s unusual for them to be allowed to speak and have the luxury to tell their story in their own words. So that has a lot to do with the stories I think are worth telling. And also, you know, women make compelling cinema.
Women make compelling cinema why? Why would you say that is?
Well, because, let me take the story of Saving Face. Here’s a story about two women and the choices they make. I wanted to show what happens if a woman chooses to fight, then this is her outcome – or if a woman chooses not to fight, then this is her outcome. This was a way to show how it’s not black and white. You need to have a certain type of heart, a certain type of stubbornness, a certain type of desire to get justice, and in Saving Face you see that. You see the stark choices women make and the results of them.
Which is how you come to understand people, right? Looking at the choices they make.
Yes, this is the heart of the story, the woman and her choices. My film about transgender, for example – in a society where you would think that women would want to become men, instead you have these men who want to become women. You never get that perspective. Why would you want to be a woman in Pakistan when you are born a man? The kind of stories I’m telling, they’re never black and white. There’s always a gray area, and we need to look at this area to understand the big picture.
I’m so curious about Saving Face – was this a well-known problem, the acid attacks on women?
No, I don’t think so. It was never very widely reported in the newspaper. It was on the inside of a newspaper, two or three lines dedicated to it maybe. But people didn’t pay attention to it. Not until Saving Face came out.
So was your film influential in the law that was being passed at the time?
No, we didn’t have an impact on the law. But we did have an impact on the Punjab government, which is a provincial government. They made acid crime an antiterrorism crime – which meant that now there would be special courts set up and there would be speedy justice dispensed. And Punjab was a province where the maximum amount of acid-violence cases are taking place.
That’s incredible. So based on your films and your history, I’d describe you as someone who doesn’t wait for the stars to line up just right. If there’s something you want to do, you just go out and do it. Do you think that’s a fair description?
Oh probably so. I wasn’t educated in filmmaking, but I’ve just always felt there are certain skills that are inherent in you and you just kind of hone them. I mean, what are documentary films? They’re storytelling. And I’ve been writing stories since I was a girl, so that’s just part of me. Honestly, I don’t think no has ever been a part of my vocabulary. Two years ago, I decided I would make Pakistan’s first animated feature. So I got some like-minded people together, we wrote up my idea, found the people to animate it, and in seven months a film will be released nationwide. So yeah, I think depending on how badly I want something, I can do it.
Did you have any mentors along the way who contributed to making you feel that sort of confidence?
It was a lot of people – my professors at college, my people at the New York Times. When I first started, my immediate boss over there, Ann Derry, she was a huge influence on me. She’s still a very good friend of mine. And now at HBO, I have an amazing mentor, also another woman, Lisa Heller. So I’m grateful for all the women over the years who have been instrumental in helping me move up.
Do you ever go through periods where you just don’t have the drive? Do you ever have lulls in your productivity?
Yeah, now. This is the first time in my career where I told myself I’m not making a film next year. I have three films coming out, an HBO film and two independent productions, and I’m not going to make a film next year. Instead, I’m going to do something completely different.
What will you do?
Well, we haven’t made an announcement yet, but I’ll be working with Tina Brown, producing Women in the World in India. Tina is the editor of The Daily Beast, the one who used to be editor of Newsweek. So next year, that’s what I’ll do. I’m going to release this animated film, I’ll do some lectures and tours, and I want to start writing my book, which I’ve been putting off for a while now. But I’m not going to make a film – not for at least a year.
And what about downtime, not working at all. Do you ever – ?
Oh no, never. I can’t imagine not having work. I don’t remember the last time I went on vacation. I vacation a lot, but I don’t remember the last time I just vacationed. I do work on my vacation. Not all the time, but you know, two hours a day or so. But it’s okay. This is what I do. I work.
The Diva Directors interview series has appeared both online and in the print editions of Film International. To date, the series has included interviews with internationally acclaimed filmmakers Gillian Armstrong (Australia), Susanne Bier (Denmark), Isabel Coixet (Spain), Cristina Comencini (Italy), Marleen Gorris (The Netherlands), Caroline Link (Germany), and Claudia Llosa (Peru).
Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International.