- 12th February 2012. Carlton Hotel, Karachi. Day 2 of the Karachi Literature Festival 2012 (KLF)
- The announced event with Sharmeen is supposed to start at 5 pm. I go to a volunteer at 4 pm to confirm that it is on. She tells me with surety that all sessions in the Theatre have been cancelled.
- The skeptic in me always needs a second opinion. I ask another volunteer. He tells me it is very much on.
- I reach the stairs leading to the theatre at around 5 minutes to 5. Many people are returning. “It’s packed. They are not letting anyone in,” they say.
- Not giving up so easily, I climb up to the door, tell at least 6 people I am a journalist, reach the door, am relieved to find someone I know volunteering (yes, contacts work in Pakistan) who lets me in, and am inside the packed auditorium. I sit on the floor near the stage with many others. I am perhaps the last person, almost, to come in. The doors are shut.
- Unlike most sessions at KLF, this one starts on time. Moderator Bilal Tanweer and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy are already on the stage.
- The tone of the moderator’s questions and Sharmeen’s answers is candid. Sharmeen sounds unrehearsed. Spontaneous. But some of her answers remind one of recent stuff about her in print media. Well, it IS the same person. How much novelty can one expect?
- Clips from 5 of her documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated “Saving Face” have a powerful impact on the audience.
- Disfigured at the hands of war, the children of Iraq; acid victims of Pakistan; the feminist movement in Saudi Arabia; bombed girls’ schools in Swat; the plight of the transgender community in Pakistan – powerful themes in each of the clips has the audience emoting and engaged. Sharmeen is very obviously pleased at the crowds’ engagement.
- The tone of the session is succinct. The Q & A session with the audience is interesting. The best question, to me, is the last one, from an ex-pat Pakistani woman, who after expressing admiration for Sharmeen’s work, asks aren’t such documentaries that show the “real but ugly” scars of Pakistani society going to leave a negative impact and promote stereo-typical images of Pakistan, specially to the global audience? I crave to add this to that question: The documentaries are well-made, yes, but should it not be more than the “tsk tsk factor aka sympathy vote” for Pakistan that we need? Shouldn’t the media create global empathy for Pakistan, rather than sympathy? Sharmeen vehemently explains her stance, and talks about how “Saving Face” is not just about acid victims but how real people like a doctor, a lawyer and parliamentarians came forth to help these women, as a community, and how Pakistan can together fight back these problems.
I hope her desired intent comes true, and her documentaries leave the impact that is intended. And I pray she brings home the Oscar.
Here are some of her quotes from the session that were the highlight of the session:
- “I have no formal training in documentary film making.”
- “You cannot be taught film-making in a class room. You have to go out there.”
- “It is important to tell stories.”
- (When asked why her stories are often told by children as central characters): “Children tell stories without any filters. Children connect to a global audience and break barriers.”
- “I am an angry person. When I am angry about something I know this will make a really good film.”
- “We need to cultivate film makers in Pakistan.”
- (When asked is she ever afraid for her life, as she touches dangerous subjects): “I believe very strongly in fate. One should not take unnecessary risks. But I don’t believe I should stop telling the kind of stories I tell for fear of my life. So yes, I am fatalistic in that sense.”