KARACHI: As part of a series of live conversations with some of the biggest and brightest figures in Pakistan, DawnTalks hosted its third conversation with Pakistan’s only Oscar winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, on Monday.

The session was held at the newly-constructed auditorium at the IBA and hosted by journalist Madeeha Syed.

It was a closed-door event where the audience, which mostly comprised students and faculty members, was encouraged to interact with Ms Obaid-Chinoy.

As a documentary film-maker, Ms Obaid-Chinoy has worked in active conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, etc. Responding to a question by the audience, she mentioned that the only time she truly felt afraid for her life was when working on a story on gang wars in East Timor. “The gangs over there fought with spears and stones, not guns,” she said, explaining that in the absence of guns as weapons, on the surface, it didn’t appear to be a particularly dangerous assignment. But while speaking to the camera while filming, “I felt something on the side of my body and felt like someone pushed me to the side,” Ms Obaid-Chinoy related, “Turns out a large boulder had been pushed from above and had landed exactly at the same spot where I had been standing.” She had been shoved out of the way just in time.

Ms Obaid-Chinoy talked about how, being a woman, it was easier to do her job here due to the respect and space usually given to women in Pakistan in comparison to men, who are often treated with suspicion and are not awarded the same ‘protection’ by society in general as women are given.

Of the women whose bravery inspired her, she spoke of a polio worker she had filmed for a series called “I heart Karachi”. “She said that when I go out and administer polio drops to immunise children, for me that’s my Jihad,” related Ms Obaid-Chinoy talking about how the polio worker worked in some of the riskiest areas for polio workers. “A few months later I was reading an article about a polio worker who had been murdered in a case of domestic violence, as I read the article, I kept hoping it wasn’t her,” Ms Obaid-Chinoy related. Sadly, it was. “Ironically, she believed she was unsafe outside her home, whereas the real danger to her life lay inside. I will never forget her.”

Touching upon the issue of domestic violence, Ms Obaid-Chinoy mentioned going to a village in Pakistan that was considered to be free of domestic violence. “On the doors of these homes were signs that read ‘This house is free of domestic violence’,” she said.

“They realised that life is better in a family where both the husband and wife are happy,” said Ms Obaid-Chinoy.

One of the more inspiring stories she related was that of Sachal, a group of musicians who predominantly played for Pakistan’s dying Lollywood industry and who were slowly robbed of their livelihood before going through a bit of a revival by coming together and forming an orchestra. “These are a group of men, in their 50s, who thought their careers were over and who’ve played to two sold-out shows at the Lincoln Centre in New York,” said Ms Obaid-Chinoy, “I’ve been following them for the past couple of years.” ‘Song of Lahore’ is the name of the documentary about Sachal and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.

Responding to a question by the audience about how she felt when she won the award, Ms Obaid-Chinoy smiled and said, “It was all a blur to be honest.” She said, “I remember my co-director Daniel (Junge) getting up and I thought, ‘Maybe we’ve won’.” All of the pundits had predicted that they wouldn’t win so she wasn’t expecting it. She followed Daniel to the stage and said it was incredibly generous of him to share the 15-or-so seconds they’re given to give a speech to her. “I hadn’t prepared anything. But I knew that what I had to say had to be for the women of Pakistan.”

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2015

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