Last year, Karachi-born filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an International Emmy for “Pakistan’s Taliban Generation”, her documentary focusing on young Taliban recruits in the aftermath of September 11. A new project of hers, in collaboration with Daniel Junge, is “Saving Face”, about a British-Pakistani plastic surgeon who treats Pakistani victims of acid attacks. The film follows some of these women as they grapple with what happened to them. “Saving Face”, which will air on HBO next year, has been shortlisted for the Oscars in the “Best Documentary, Short Subject” category. Obaid-Chinoy, 33 years old, talked about “Saving Face” and “Pakistan’s Taliban Generation”, how she films controversial interviews and why she wishes she’d made “City of God”.
How did “Saving Face” come together?
Daniel contacted me early last year while looking for a partner. He had already started filming some sequences for “Saving Face” and felt that we would work well together. The subject matter immediately appealed to me: Acid violence impacts women in southern Punjab and changes the lives of hundreds of women each year.
The film follows Dr Mohammad Jawad, a surgeon who travelled to Pakistan from the United Kingdom in order to help these women through reconstructive surgery. “Saving Face” is also a story of hope and about Pakistani women helping each other. In this instance, a female Pakistani lawyer took up the legal case of one of the victims and successfully managed to convict the perpetrator.
Will it air in Pakistan?
It will be screened in private venues, after which we will endeavour to bring it to local TV stations if they show interest.
“Pakistan’s Taliban Generation” won an International Emmy last year. How did you begin working with Daniel Edge, its director?
I had pitched the idea for “Pakistan’s Taliban Generation” to Channel 4 in the United Kingdom and was looking for somebody who shared my artistic sensibilities and aesthetic style to come on board. Channel 4 suggested Daniel, and I felt we were a good match because we both shared a passion for storytelling. Working with him was a wonderful experience; we brought different sensibilities to the table and ended up making a film that we both regard as the best documentary we have produced so far in our careers.
The day I won an Emmy was also the day my father passed away. I received a call from my sister on the way to the ceremony and had to turn my car around and catch the first flight back to Karachi. Whilst boarding, I received a call from Daniel, who told me that we had won. It was a bittersweet moment for me.
How did you find people to talk about such sensitive subject matter?
Our crew spent six months on the ground interviewing people, gaining their trust and building connections with madrassas and the Taliban. It took a considerable amount of time and effort before doors started opening for us. I always believe in working bottom up – to get to the source of the story one has to live amongst them.
Our biggest concern while shooting “Pakistan’s Taliban Generation” was that of being kidnapped by the Taliban. There were many instances in which we had to abandon scheduled interviews because our sources were not reliable. Once we had made our connections and had achieved access to madrassas, we were given a surprising amount of freedom. The students and teachers we met were eager to tell their side of the story as it was something that they deeply believed in and wanted to make known to the rest of the world.
Do these films show in Pakistan, where they’re shot?
Unfortunately, Pakistan does not have a culture of documentary films. TV channels are yet to show a sincere interest in this medium. In December 2011, I will be opening up my production house, Sharmeen Obaid Films, and aspire to change the way Pakistanis approach nonfiction storytelling. There are thousands of stories to be found here.
Is there a movie out there that you wish you’d made?
“City of God”, because it is such a vibrant film that feels very close to home. There are a number of parallels between the slums of Brazil and those found in my hometown, Karachi. The dichotomy that exists in Brazil is uncannily similar to that found in Pakistan, and I hope to one day make a film that follows similar themes.
Edited from an interview with Sonya Rehman