Why documentary film-maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy winning the Oscar for ‘Saving Face' was the moment many Pakistanis were waiting for.Anita Joshua
As 33-year-old Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy stood with her Oscar in a Bunto Kazmi designer outfit, she represented the many parts of the whole that is Pakistan; in fact, the sub-continent. What the world got to see was a young stylishly dressed bare-armed Muslim woman — head uncovered — bag the Oscar for “Saving Face”, a documentary film on victims of acid attacks whose faces had been rendered featureless.
In the one minute that Sharmeen held centrestage at the Oscar awards, this upwardly mobile Pakistani — she is said to have British nationality but then in Pakistan many hold two passports — told the world that her country cannot be boxed into one definition or seen purely in terms of black and white.
All credit to her co-director Daniel Junge for recognising the significance of the moment and allowing Sharmeen to take the spotlight. Much like her films, she minced no words. In less than 30 seconds she said: “Daniel and I want to dedicate this award to all the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan including Dr. Mohammad Jawad who is here with us today. The plastic surgeon working on rehabilitating all these women… Ruksana and Zakia who are our main subjects of the film whose resilience and bravery in the face of such adversity is admirable. And to all the women of Pakistan who are working for change, don't give up on your dreams. This is for you.”
Back home, this was the moment everyone was waiting for: A rare feel-good factor for the people of a blighted nation. For friend of 21 years standing and television anchorperson Wajahat S. Khan, the Oscar was a testimony to her hard work and consistency. “The only thing consistent about Sharmeen is her almost stubborn consistency. Everything else may be subject to change, deletion, dynamism or even evolution. But, Sharmeen is almost martial in her valour to deliver.”
The eldest of five sisters and one brother, Sharmeen was born to a well-placed family of Karachi. After schooling at the Karachi Grammar School, she went on to do her graduation from Smith College and then masters from Stanford University. She was in college in the U.S. when 9/11 happened. Interested in investigative journalism, she decided to use film-making — in which she has no professional training — to bridge the gulf the attacks created between the East and the West.
Self and on-the-job trained, Sharmeen's first documentary was on the lives of Afghan refugee children living in Pakistan. Christened “Terrors Children”, she bagged two awards for her maiden venture and there has been no looking back since. She now has 16 documentaries to her name in the 10 years that she has been into film-making and has been awarded for many of them. Prior to the Oscar, the Emmy was the biggest award that she held for her 2009 film “Pakistan's Taliban Generation/ Children of The Taliban”.
Her work has taken her to Afghanistan to see how life has changed for Afghan women after the American occupation in “Lifting the Veil: Afghanistan Unveiled”; Iraq, Syria and Jordan to track the plight of Iraqi refugees in “Iraq: The Lost Generation”; Sweden to capture the tensions between locals and immigrant Muslims in “Assimilation No, Integration Yes”; Saudi Arabia for focusing on the second class status of women in “Women of the Holy Kingdom”,… The list is rather exhaustive including South Africa, Canada, Timor, the Philippines and even India where she boarded the Samjhauta Express from the Indian side to find out how fellow Pakistanis were reacting to the baby steps being taken by the two countries towards peace.
Though her repertoire touches upon a wide range of issues, Sharmeen has been criticised back home for projecting the underside; something that a nation prone to believing in conspiracy theories sees as anti-Pakistan propaganda. Part of this is because her films have little exposure here. The same was said of “Saving Face” — which premieres on HBO on International Women's Day (March 8) — but more than being a film about acid attack victims, the documentary focuses on a Pakistani-British doctor returning to his native place to help victims with reconstructive surgery and dwells on the effort made by women politicians of Pakistan to enact a law criminalising acid attacks.