Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the Oscar for Short Documentary in 2012 for Saving Face. She’s nominated again this year for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Both films tell the stories of Pakistani women mutilated or killed by radical moralists, and highlight the people around them fighting for societal progress. Girl centers on 18-year-old Saba Qaiser, who survived an attempt on her life by her own father and uncle in a so-called ‘honor killing’ after she decided to marry a young man considered beneath her class. Obaid-Chinoy tells AwardsLine about the difficulties she faced documenting Qaiser’s story, and the importance of shining a light on the situation for future generations of women.
How did Saba Qaiser’s story come to you?
I’d wanted to do a film about honor killings for a while now, but unfortunately all the victims of honor killings are perished—they do not survive. One day I was looking in the newspaper and it said that a girl had been shot and thrown in the river in what appeared to be an attempted honor killing, and that she survived and was in a local hospital. My team and I started tracking the hospital, calling the hospital, and we got permission from the hospital, run by this wonderful doctor who had daughters of his own and was appalled by what had happened to Saba. My team and I arrived just a few days after she had been taken into the hospital.
There’s little flattering light to shine on Qaiser’s family; how were you able to involve them in the film?
It was difficult initially to get access to her parents. In the early days, we spent a lot of time with Saba and her husband, who wanted their story told. Theirs is a beautiful love story. They were open to us filming, and after a while, because we had the support of the local police and the doctor from the hospital, we started to be entrusted and made connections with her mother and her siblings and finally, one day, were allowed into their homes to begin filming them.
What does an Oscar nomination do to help spread this message?
An Academy Award for a social justice documentary filmmaker means that the subject that you’re dealing with gets amplified. In this case, we have a real chance to change the laws in Pakistan, so an Academy Award nomination and having the film out there has really affected the national discourse about honor killings in Pakistan. It’s huge to be able to impact that—it’s every filmmaker’s dream to change a law, and I think that here, we have a real chance to do so. I think the nomination has a part to play in that because it’s brought worldwide attention to the film, so for the first time in the country, the Prime Minister came out and said that he would work on honor killings. On Monday, we’re doing the first ever screening of the film in Pakistan at the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, which is his office, and there are people from all walks of life—activists, people from the diplomatic corps, people who work on this issue, and parliamentarians—who are coming together to watch the film, and then see how best to move forward. It’s really a win because here we are, at this step where we are going to be impacting the law, and hopefully saving lives in the future.
Has there been blowback to the film in Pakistan? We’ve seen in cases like Malala Yousafzai‘s that voices challenging the status quo aren’t necessarily welcome.
It is tricky to tell these kinds of stories in Pakistan because, of course, putting up a mirror to society isn’t easily digestible by some people. There are, of course, murmurings that this film should not have been made. When you’re pushing the envelope and you when you want to create change, or when you want to spark difficult conversations in any country, there is bound to be blowback. There has been, just in terms of that type of murmuring that has taken place, but overall, because the Prime Minister has really come out strong, I think that has muted, almost, these voices that would have otherwise spoken out.
There’s an intense moment in the documentary where you go into the prison and are questioning Qaiser’s father and uncle, who were responsible for the attempted murder. You question whether their beliefs in honor and respect are worth spending their lives in prison to defend, and they affirm that yes, they are. What was your reaction in that moment?
Getting into that prison and filming them was a coup, to be honest. It’s very hard to get that kind of access. I wanted to have that perspective because not having Saba’s father talking to us, and not showing his point of view, would have weakened the film. It was very important to have that voice to understand, because you see him in jail and then you see him at the end of the film, and you understand what him being free means, on a bigger scale. It was a very difficult interview to do because, as a filmmaker, you have to show restraint when you’re interviewing people, and it’s hard when the man on the other side is telling you, “I would do it again. What I did was right.” I really had to hold myself back, but in hindsight when I think about it, I often think that this is the only life her father has known. Living in the darkness, how would you understand what life looks like? He doesn’t know any other way of life—think about it. Just the way when he walks free, anybody else who lives in his neighborhood, they will also think that what he did was honorable. They might also, in the future, kill their daughter, because of the signal that sends. He must have seen someone do this and walk scot-free and that’s why he believed it’s an honorable thing to do. It’s a vicious cycle.
Are you seeing signs of change and progress in the culture overall, with regard to the treatment of women?
There are two ways of looking at it. One is that there are more women who are speaking out. The media is a vital presence in Pakistan—we have 42 news channels in the country breaking news and shedding light on atrocities. You see that all the time. There are a lot of lawyers, policemen and activists who are speaking up for the victims, especially women. Having said that, the society in Pakistan is changing rapidly. There is a lot of push and pull—60% of our population is under the age of 25. Chinese handheld phones that cost only 20 dollars is making it easy for everyone to access the internet now. Women are becoming more aware of their rights. In this patriarchal society, of course there are people who want to hold onto the status quo, who don’t want women to have more rights, and they will do their best to hold onto that, and by holding onto that, of course, you will find the violence against women will rise because the more women will push, the more there will be a pushback. I think with the violence against women, you will see consistently that there will be violence against women, but the good news is that people are speaking up, people are helping, and men are coming forward to help women. That shows that we will see some change in attitudes toward women in the near future.