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Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Won The Oscar. So What’s The Big Deal?

Euphoria. Excitement. Waking up at wee hours of the morning, and an excited nation praying with baited breaths waited hopefully for what was an expected and well-deserved win.

And it finally happened! Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s documentary “Saving Face” has won the Oscar.

And the euphoria is now viral. On Twitter, Facebook, blogs…..and that’s what we all are talking about, incessantly. Especially the Pakistani women.

Agreed that this is a great honour, but is it such a big deal as we are making it out to be? Turns out it is!!!

To begin with, the first reason is simply that Pakistan and Pakistanis are sick of all the “bad news” about them, both locally and internationally. Pakistan makes headlines, for sure. But mostly for a suicide bombing, for a drone attack, for an earth quake or a flood, for an air hostess trying to take with her dozens of cell phones at JFK Airport, for honour killings and violated women and extremism and radicalization. I can never forget how a fellow female journalist from Africa, in the course of a seminar I was attending in Washington DC in December of 2010, kept observing me for a while, then made the first move and came and said Hi and then said,”you smile a lot. You seem normal. How can anyone be normal in Pakistan?”. Well, Sharmeen’s win is an answer to that. Not only are we normal…..we are alive and throbbing and kicking! It is refreshing and replenishing to know that for every bomb blast and hate campaign news bulletin, there also comes along a Naseem Hameed, an Irfah Kareem, a Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. The inherent human spirit is celebratory in nature, not morbid, I believe. There is only so much one can mope and cry about. Good news like this gives us a breather. So yes, this is a big deal.

It is also a big deal because Chinoy is a woman. Contrary to popular belief, Pakistan is not THE most woman-unfriendly country in the world, but is not the friendliest either. We have our issues when it comes to women. Pre-dominantly, it still is a patriarchal society. Domestic violence, rape, acid throwing still happen. Women face both harassment and discrimination at work place. Men (not all, of course), still are the spoilt brats in a lot of cases. This is February 2012, and in Mianwali’s by-elections, women are still being barred from voting. But even then, we’re not so badly off. We’ve had the first female Prime Minister of the Muslim world, the first female speaker of the National Assembly. We have an Asma Jehangir who scares the hell out of persecutor-type men. We have formidable talents in the likes of Mehreen Jabbar. We have women politicians who do us proud with some, if not all, of their feats – Marvi Memon, Nafisa Shah, Shazia Murree to name a few. And now we have a Chinoy who, being a woman, brings home the Oscar for the first time. In Chinoy, the woman who works her way up on the corporate ladder among sleazy flirts and the female activist who struggles to highlight women’s issues finds hope. So yes, it is a big deal. Though I must add here that not all men are patriarchal, chauvinistic sleaze-balls. We are blessed, as a nation, with an increasing number of level-headed, emotionally secure men who are the back bone for our success stories. I do believe that behind every successful woman, there is a man who believed in her.

Chinoy’s success is a big deal also to those wonderful, strong, resilient and “beautiful” women who are victims of the horrendous atrocity called “acid throwing” which is one of the cruelest forms of evil a human can inflict on another. It is a big deal to people who fight against these crimes – people like Dr Mohammad Jawad, the reconstructive surgeon from UK who comes back to homeland for “payback time” and does what he can to make a a few lives better. For activists, this documentary’s success is more than just an Oscar. It is something that pulls one back from disillusionment when one works day after day to make lives better with no apparent result in sight at times.

But while we are relishing this happy moment for Pakistan, exchanging mithaai and muabarakbaad and excitedly seeing Chinoy and “Saving Face” trend on Twitter, my inward hope is that the documentary which will now make people sit up and watch it, does not become a mere “tsk tsk, poor Pakistan” to the audience in the West. I hope it will be seen as an emblem of resilience, and not another addition in Pakistan’s list of problems. See it as a sign of the better days to come in the life of this brave, proud nation, who can and will have better tomorrows. We don’t need sympathy. We need hope.

Saving Face Trailer:

Bullet Points: A session with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012

  • 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.”