Taking a firm stand for what one believes strongly in is virtuous but spreading the awareness to others by utilising one’s gift is noble. That is exactly what Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the internationally renowned documentary-maker and journalist from Karachi, Pakistan has dedicated herself to achieve in her life. In this issue, Top 10 of Asia speakswith the feisty filmmaker on her myriad of experiences, accomplishments and some secrets to her success.
While mainly focused on the themes of conflict and social justice, most of Sharmeen’s films revolve around the consequences of war and the ways in which it impacts marginalised communities. Her work has taken the visual activist all over the world, from Afghanistan to Timor Leste in search of compelling human interest stories. It is easy to drone on and on of the director’s long list of remarkable feats and triumphs, which include two Emmy Awards and an Oscar, making her the first Pakistani to be an Academy Award recipient. However, all achievements begin with inspiration and it is no different for this social artist.
“I started writing for local papers and publications in Karachi at the age of fourteen, and pursued print journalism while I was in college in the United States. My decision to pursue documentary filmmaking was motivated by the aftermath of the World Trade Centre tragedy on 11 September 2001 when the world’s focus shifted to Afghanistan and Pakistan.” That was when the visionary scholar realised she had a unique vantage point as a native Pakistani who had spent a substantial amount of time in the US. “I hoped that I would be able to successfully tell stories from the East to audiences in the West. Soon thereafter, I made my first film, ‘Terror’s Children’, which was about Afghan refugees in Karachi. I felt an instant connection to the medium, and haven’t looked back since!” says Sharmeen with an obvious tone of excitement.
Working closely with real people and documenting their hardship does not come without its own unique challenges. The difficulties faced by Sharmeen and her team often differ according to the nature of the film in question. However, the main concern is almost always the security of everyone involved in a project, both the subjects and the crew. “Most filmmakers have to grapple with security concerns and that sentiment is amplified when you are leading a team into some of the most dangerous parts of the world,” admits the mother of a 3-year-old girl.
Sharmeen puts her heart and soul into each of her films and some of the most gratifying moments for her as a filmmaker are when her films achieve the tangible changes that they are meant to do. She firmly believes that documentaries truly serve their purpose when they are used for social justice or activism.
“For example, I made a film last year about the efforts of a young educationalist, HumairaBachal. Humaira ran a make-shift school out of a rented room in an urban slum in Karachi. She was eager to open a state-of-the-art facility but didn’t have the funds to pursue the project. We successfully used the film in partnership with Catapult and Gucci to raise enough money to fund Humaira’s school, which will now provide high quality education to thousands of children every year. Moments like these are what reminds me of why I chose this career and why I believe that such stories need to be told,” says Sharmeen who cites her father as her role model and mentor.
The harder the road gets, the more resilient the filmmaker becomes. Bearing no regrets of the past, the award-winning journalist reveals that she always looks at each project as a learning process where there is always an opportunity to learn something new. What then motivates her to push forward and keep working every day? “It’s the nature of the stories that I cover and I regard those opportunities to do so as a privilege for me,” reveals Sharmeen. “From acid attack survivors who are fighting legal battles to the struggles of transgender populations in urban Karachi, I am always amazed at the sheer will and determination of the people that I meet. They motivate me to continue my work despite of whatever challenges I may face.”
A significant struggle Sharmeen faces everyday is finding the right balance between her work and personal life. “I am fortunate to have a husband who takes pride in my achievements and a family that has always valued hard work and determination.” She readily admits that attaining the perfect equilibrium is easier said than done. “It isn’t always easy and there are definitely still times when I wish that I had more hours in a day!”
When asked about what she would like to see herself doing in the next ten years, the acclaimed documentarian has this to say: “I would like to have many more documentary films under my belt and would consider venturing into fiction films if the right project comes along. I also hope to mentor the up-and-coming young filmmakers in Pakistan as they start their careers in documentary programming.”