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Tête-à-tête: Saying ‘no’ to nay-sayers

Updated April 13, 2014

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- Photo by Bina Shah
- Photo by Bina Shah

“The thing about being successful is that you need to take it in your stride,” said Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, two-time Emmy award winner, Pakistan’s first (and only) Oscar recipient and overall badass documentary film-maker. “When I came back after winning the Academy Award (in 2012), even those who would sit behind a computer and write two lines and say ‘Oh, I don’t think she should’ve won the Oscar’ see me in public places and have their kids take a photograph with me!” she added with a smile.

The Oscar and one of the Emmys sit proudly in her personal office at the headquarters of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy Films, a production house she opened a couple of years ago. At the reception is a display case with the rest of her many, many awards, the ones she got before the Oscar came into her life and the many that continue to arrive after— one easily loses count.

Post winning the Oscar; running errands has become rather motivating for Sharmeen as she runs into people telling her that their children now dream of becoming award-winning film-makers. “I think I was able to break that glass ceiling for a lot of people,” she said, “The sky is the limit. You can go anywhere and do whatever you want. I’m not competing with Pakistanis. I don’t want to. I’m competing with the world. Why are we competing with each other to begin with?”

But does the negative feedback ever weigh her down or make her feel frustrated? “Absolutely not,” she responded firmly, “Sometimes I read a tweet and I laugh. Do you know why? I know that pettiness and I’m above that. “

“I’m 35 years old. I started working when I was 14 and it has been over 12 years since I’ve been making documentaries. I’ve made 17 films in over 12 countries. So I’m not a one-hit wonder. In the global world, I know where I am. I know if I want to pick the phone and call a television channel anywhere in the world and give them my credentials, I’ll get a film commissioned. So I’m not worried about the naysayers.”

She knows what she would like to gift to her country “I would like to enable 10 to 20 film-makers from Pakistan to come out, that’s all I want now.”

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has been based out of Karachi since 2007. Previously she shuttled between New York, Paris, Toronto and Karachi. Is it more challenging working out of Pakistan compared to anywhere else in the world? “It is because there are very few places that would air the kind of work that I do,” she responded. “But I have to say that now there are people in the media that are more accepting and want to do groundbreaking work.”

A part of that ‘groundbreaking’ work includes her latest production, Aaghaz-i-Safar. Part-documentary, part-studio interviews, the show confronts 12 issues that concern ordinary Pakistanis. It’s shot in four provinces and covers around 14 languages (including dialects). “We feel that in prime time in Pakistan, the stories of the people are lost,” she related. “We’ve looked at medical negligence, water, land, child abuse, domestic violence, minorities, etc. Each episode focuses on two to three stories. Two are about what happens when the system fails, one is about what happens when the system works. So we’ve shown both sides of the same coin.”

That’s not where the show ends. At the end of the programme, viewers will be told what other countries have done to solve these problems and what they can do on their own to contribute towards a possible solution. All of the episodes, including additional material, will be available online as well. “We’re empowering people to find solutions to their problems,” Sharmeen stressed. “Because I think the narrative that one person needs to find a solution for 180 million people … just doesn’t happen. We all need to take ownership of our problems.”

That all sounds very well, but Aaghaz-i-Safar is beginning to sound uncannily like a programme being shown across the border. “Satyamev Jayate?” she responds immediately, “We started working on the show, probably around the same time Aamir Khan started working on his show over there. We were already in production by the time his first episode went on air.

“If you look at it, the similarities are there. He’s made a proactive show, we’ve made a proactive show. He’s broken away from prime time, we’ve broken away from prime time. But that’s Aamir Khan’s forte and that’s my forte. He tells stories and so do I.”

But the approach is different? “Yes,” she said, “because we’re more documentary heavy and he’s more studio heavy.”

Who’s the Aamir Khan in her show? “Fakhre Alam,” she relates, talking about the TV presenter and actor who has been gracing the small screen in Pakistan for over 20 years. He was also the face of the 2005 earthquake relief efforts on television. “We wanted to find someone who was socially conscious and intelligent. Fakhre Alam is both. He did tell me that no one’s ever kicked his butt as much as I have,” she added with a smile.

The show focuses heavily on facts, information, comparisons, and analyses and there is no room left for error. “Let’s just say he told me he’s never done a show in which he’s learned so much,” said Sharmeen. “He said ‘I walked out of here looking and seeing things differently’.”

That is the effect Sharmeen is hoping the show will have on the audiences. “In Aghaz-i-Safar you’ll see a woman who has made an entire village in Southern Punjab domestic-violence free,” she related. “A young man who spent his life on the streets and who was sexually abused now rescues children from the streets — he’s turned his life around. There is a blind woman who is changing the way the blind read, a young woman whose father was killed by land grabbers and who is fighting for justice.” These are just some of the powerful and inspiring stories that the show will bring to Pakistani audiences.

That’s not the only people-focused project that SOC Films has been involved with. On Independence Day this year, they plan to air a show called I heart Karachi which will profile the lives of five local heroes from this often troubled city of 20 million people. These are ordinary individuals doing extraordinary things and include the likes of a journalist who risks his life to report on crime and terrorism, the head of the emergency ward at a local hospital, a fire fighter, a polio worker and a member of the bomb disposal squad.

One thing I know, having interacted with Sharmeen for many years is that other than being incredibly strong-willed, the woman is fearless. Having said that, her subjects in I heart Karachi also seem to exhibit the same characteristics — they work in incredibly difficult circumstances with a constant threat to their life looming over their heads. “The families of these people are constantly prepared for the possibility that they might not come home,” she added, “The person who works in the bomb disposal squad would get up and leave at 4am without telling his wife that he has to go and defuse a bomb.”

Does she take strength from her subjects? “Absolutely,” she responded, “There is a polio worker who is determined to go out and do her job despite the fact that her colleagues have died and that there is a constant threat to her life. And she works in category one zones.” Category one is an area on the frontlines of conflict.

“My films are now about the people, and less so about the issue,” she added thoughtfully, “I feel that for me, personally, it’s time to highlight people and how they are dealing with extraordinary challenges and what kind of change they’re able to achieve.”

Living in Pakistan does not by any means indicate that her focus is moving away from global stories. One of her on-going projects includes a film on women in combat with a special focus on Bangladesh. “I’ve been following women who have joined the police force in Bangladesh for over 10 months now. Bangladesh has also formed the first all-women, all-Muslim peacekeeping unit,” Sharmeen added. “And they’ve been involved in peacekeeping in the Congo and the Haiti.” Sharmeen has also followed their activities to these regions as well.

Changing her approach while tackling her subjects doesn’t change Sharmeen’s underlying objective. “I’m trying to tell the stories no one wants to tell yet, they are different,” she affirmed. May the force be with you.