D.C. Feature

02.28.14

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Pakistan’s Most Daring Documentarian

After shedding light on acid violence and girls’ education in Pakistan, Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy turns to female entrepreneurs and peacekeepers. Watch her discuss her projects this Wednesday at Women in the World's D.C. event.

For Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a camera reveals not only the soul of each carefully chosen character, but also the heart of a phenomenon that might otherwise exist as a series of headlines or statistics. 

The acclaimed filmmaker, who has tackled the issues of educating girls in Pakistan and the horrors of acid violence, now has an even sharper focus: profiling those who are agents of change on the ground. “After winning the Academy Award [in 2012], I wanted to find people who are creating change from the ground up in Pakistan,” Obaid-Chinoy says, “and to talk about those people, rather than the issues.”

Obaid-Chinoy’s next film, Seeds of Change, will be released in about two months. Its subject is Khalida Brohi, whose crusade against so-called “honor killings” led to fierce opposition in her home in Balochistan and, later, to establish the Sughar Empowerment Society, which provides women with the training and resources to launch their own businesses. Brohi provided one of the most powerful moments at last year’s Women in the World Summit. Speaking at a session entitled “The Next Generation of Malalas” with Obaid-Chinoy and activist Humaira Bachal, Brohi remembered her father’s warning that doing this work would kill her. Her response? “Doing this work will keep me alive.”

After bringing Brohi’s story to the masses, Obaid-Chinoy is venturing a bit further afield to film Peacekeepers, about an all-female Bangladeshi UN peacekeeping troop that has been deployed to Haiti. The project, which  received a $100,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation in January, will focus on the role women play in conflict resolutions and peace building. Obaid-Chinoy is in production on the film now with co-director Geeta Gandbhir.

“Documentary films are not something that everyone thinks about as entertainment,” says Obaid Chinoy, “But what I’m hoping to do is cast a wide net. Stories that have some good news have become quite important to me. I want them to be told.”

She’s witnessed what happens when covering subjects with a positive angle. Her recent short documentary Humaira: The Dream Catcher, profiling activist Humaira Bachal, offers a rare perspective on the struggle for girls’ education in their native Pakistan: a hopeful one.

Bachal, now 26, began her fight for an education at age 12 when, after she’d finished primary school, her father decided he’d rather marry her off than send her to class. Her mother helped her continue her schooling in secret, sending her to another part of Karachi, far away from their village of Moach Goth. Realizing just how lucky she was—and how rare her experience—she started a door-to-door campaign to get parents to send their kids to study with her for the nominal fee of one rupee per day. By the time Obaid-Chinoy began work on the documentary, Bachal had singlehandedly educated 1,200 children in a small, three-room school.

“Pakistan has massive education issues,” says Obaid-Chinoy, “but when you see Humaira, you see someone who is battling it on the ground every single day. You see her struggles and her victories, and you will her to win.”

The two women first shared a stage in London this past June, when an exclusive one-minute clip of Humaira screened for audiences at the Gucci-founded Chime for Change benefit concert in London. Since then the film has been shown both in the U.S. and around the world—including at home in Pakistan, where the filmmaker’s Oscar-winning Saving Face, about female victims of acid violence, stirred up shame and controversy.

The response to Humaira, says Obaid-Chinoy, has been different—and overwhelmingly positive. The exposure has also generated support for Bachal’s Dream Model Street School , which is funding a massive renovation of the school as well as training for its 22 young teachers.

“People want to give their time and money and network support,” she says. “They want to believe that it’s not just people outside Pakistan who want them to succeed.”

Watch Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Humaira Bachal speak during the Women in the World event here.