On February 27, 2012, as the name of the winner for the Academy Award for Documentary — Short Subject was announced; the world’s attention fell on the Saraiki belt of Punjab in Pakistan. It’s where most of the case studies for Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge’s Oscar award-winning documentary, Saving Face, were concentrated. Their stories acted as timely reminders of the suffering and survival endured by forgotten, scarred faces — mentally and physically. Thankfully, life is looking up, once more, for these real-life heroines. Next week, Obaid-Chinoy, who has documented numerous human causes from across the globe, will be in Mumbai for the India premiere of Saving Face.
What has been the response to Saving Face, after the Oscar?
When news of the Oscar broke out in Pakistan, the response was incredible. Acid violence became a national issue, and received unprecedented coverage in the media, thereby prompting a national dialogue about the issue. I received countless emails from individuals and organisations who wanted to get involved and do their part in spreading awareness and prompting social change. It was heartening to see such a positive response. I’m glad Saving Face helped shed light on this issue and hope that these changes gather momentum over time.
What were some of your biggest hurdles while filming, especially at the ground level? Were the survivors ready to speak openly?
Saving Face was filmed in the Saraiki belt of Punjab, where acid attacks in Pakistan are concentrated. Low literacy levels and high unemployment rates, are responsible for a very backward mindset, characterise this densely populated region. This mindset was our biggest hurdle as people were wary of us. However, after spending sufficient time in the region and after establishing relations with the acid survivors, we found some brave women who wanted to step up. They were ready to step out of the norm if it meant the awareness generated could save other women from the devastating crime they had suffered.
You’ve had several firsts against your name, including being the first non-American to be awarded the Livingston Award for best international reporting. What goes through your mind each time you are reminded of such feats?
I feel honoured and grateful for having received such acclaim. These achievements are a reminder of my firm belief that if you work hard and strive for success you will see the results of your work and you will be acknowledged. The support that the Oscar generated for the effort to combat acid violence is a reward in its own right, and it has motivated me to continue to produce quality work.
What drives you toward stepping into unknown territory while filming your documentaries?
It is the cause that motivates me. I am driven to document the conditions of marginalised societies, regardless of geography, so that the world may learn about them. My work is geared towards creating awareness about issues to facilitate critical discourse and get the ball rolling towards social change.
Have you ever toyed with the idea of collaborating with an Indian director, or working on an India-centric cause?
Given the central role played by India in Pakistan’s historical narrative, I would love to collaborate with Indian filmmakers. We both stand to learn from each other because our cultures are so similar. Although it is difficult to coordinate such an initiative due to stringent restrictions imposed by the government, I admire the Indian art scene and would love to collaborate with an Indian director or focus on an India-centric cause.
In April, you were named by Time magazine as among the 100 most influential people of the world. How does the honour feel?
It reminds me of the bigger picture — I see myself as a storyteller. This year, I was lucky enough to tell a story that struck a chord with audiences and helped promote a cause. The past year has reinvigorated my faith and dedication to the art of story telling. In the larger scheme of things, that is all that matters.
After having documented human rights issues from Syria to Indonesia and beyond, what’s next?
I want to shed light on the polio epidemic in Pakistan. It is a devastating issue, which can be carefully eradicated if sufficient resources are plugged into the cause.
How and why did you start The Citizens Archive of Pakistan?
I started Citizens Archive of Pakistan, an ongoing initiative, in 2007 because there was a dire need to archive Pakistani history and to preserve its culture. We are lucky enough to still have the first generation of Pakistanis in our presence and it is important for us to preserve their traditions and document their struggles. CAP has collected the oral histories of over 1,200 people, and has an extensive archive of print and photography. We are currently leading school outreach tours, the focus of which is to develop the quality of education in the classrooms of underprivileged children. The organisation has been able to branch out into three major cities and has witnessed tremendous success through annual exhibitions. CAP has established itself as a cultural institution and stands to grow further in the future.
As a citizen of the world, and for having championed and projected numerous causes, how do you move on to the next issue or cause? How tough is it to approach each of them in isolation?
The plight of marginalised societies pushes me to help bring their conditions to a global platform. While it is difficult and often emotionally challenging to work with such subjects, the courage and resilience that so many of them have shown in the face of unimaginable circumstances is inspirational. Working with them on a personal level is a constant reminder of the need for social change and pushes me to do my best.
After the film screening, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy will be joined in conversation with filmmaker Kiran Rao in Mumbai on Tuesday, July 24, 6.30pm. Registration begins at 6 pm at the venue, Experimental Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point, Mumbai