For Oscar-winning documentary maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, making films is a way to promote social change. In this exclusive interview for J-Source, she tells Sneha Kulkarni it's not the awards that matter, but the lives you change.

For Oscar-winning documentary maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, making films is a way to promote social change. In this exclusive interview for J-Source, she tells Sneha Kulkarni it's not the awards that matter, but the lives you change.

Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy shrugs off suggestions of newly found celebrity and stardom, instead the documentary maker describes herself as a social crusader.

In February, Obaid Chinoy became the first Pakistani-Canadian to win an Oscar award.  She landed the coveted golden statue for her documentary Saving Face, which shines light on two courageous acid-attack survivors, Rukhsana and Zakia, and their attempts to bring their assailants to justice.

It also focuses on a British-Pakistani plastic surgeon who volunteers his services in his home country to help acid attack survivors move on with their lives. Obaid Chinoy says, “I felt it was my duty to draw attention to this phenomenon in hopes of facilitating social change.”

There is no denying the weeks that followed her Oscar win were a whirlwind.  Pakistani media exploded with pride, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister bestowed the 34-year-old filmmaker with a civil award for her work. 

Yet amidst all the accolades and countless interviews and emails, her biggest source of pride is the immense support shown for the fight against acid attacks. She says, “Now more then ever, my belief that hard work gets results has been strengthened.”

Obaid Chinoy and her team spent several months living in Pakistan’s Seraiki belt, the region in which most acid violence attacks occur. She says by settling in the area she was able to build trustworthy relationships with the community and acid attack NGOs operating in the region.

While she is grateful that the two main subjects of the film bravely invited her into their lives and were willing to speak about their experiences, she admits that being a Muslim-Pakistani woman helped her form a stronger bond with her female subjects, and likely made them more comfortable while shooting the interviews.

Obaid Chinoy doesn’t view herself strictly as a journalist, but as a voice for the marginalized. She began her journalism career as an investigative print reporter in Karachi, but decided to try her hand at documentary film making in 2002.

With just two weeks training in film making and a grant, she embarked on a trip to Pakistan to make Terror’s Children, a documentary about Afghan refugee children. 

Her debut film won numerous press awards. Since then she has made a dozen documentaries, and hasn’t looked back. 

Obaid Chinoy describes film as a visceral medium that can capture stories in ways that cannot be replicated in print.  

Documentaries manage to convey stories in a cohesive manner; audiences are able to directly connect with the subject matter, and are drawn to the content immediately.”

She adds, “ film transcends all mediums [media] by breaking down the barriers between the subject and the viewer.”

However, Saving Face is more than a film, it has become a movement.  It is now the front for a major educational awareness project in Pakistan.

“Film is the ideal medium for just this sort of art activism, and I hoped that Saving Face would be the first step in getting us closer to ridding acid violence in totality,” said Obaid Chinoy.

In partnership with NGOs, such as the Acid Survivors Foundation, Obaid Chinoy is leading the charge to create and distribute educational material and public service announcements in areas within Pakistan where literacy levels are lowest and acid-attacks are most common.

Already signs of change can be seen, with new Pakistani laws being introduced to punish and imprison acid attack perpetrators. 

To date, Saving Face has been screened on HBO and at numerous film festivals, but it has not aired in Pakistan, the focal point of the film’s activism.

Obaid Chinoy explains the film will not premiere in her home country until she can ensure the safety of the acid-attack survivors in the film. She says she salutes their courage to speak out, and “their well being is of paramount interest to us and thus is a primary concern when planning for the premiere.”

Saving Face has brought global attention to the issue of acid attacks, but Obaid Chinoy admits there is still a lot of work to be done, and says this is an issue she will continue to bring to the forefront. 

Over the course of the film, we are able to see change occur in real time; a historical bill is passed; remarkable surgery is successful; and we are left with hope of the fact that justice is still in our reach.”

And for those who care about journalism, there is hope that good storytelling still can change the world.

Sneha Kulkarni is a television journalist in Toronto. She completed a journalism degree at Ryerson University and has a Master of Arts in Professional Communication.