Living in reel time

A Pakistani documentary-maker based in Karachi, Paris, New York and Canada, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy has won accolades from all over the world — the most notable being the Livingston Award for journalism and being the only non-American so far to have received it. She is also one of the 25 people picked out to represent 25 years of the Livingston Awards.

Having made documentaries and travelled to places such as South Africa, Manila (Philippines) and Afghanistan, and having made a locally-controversial documentary out of Pakistan titled Reinventing the Taliban, Sharmeen isn’t one to sit back when there is a story at hand or to get intimidated by the material she uncovers. Independent, straightforward and to-the-point with a visibly pragmatic side to her, one of the things that becomes apparent when meeting her in person is that she does not have a different camera personality — she is exactly the way she is in real life, in her mannerisms and way of talking and addressing issues, as she is on camera.

Recently, with the formation of the Citizens’ Archive of Pakistan (CAP) with a view of archiving and communicating Pakistan’s history and heritage, the group went on to organise the Shanaakht Festival held around Pakistans Independence Day. Talks about Partition, photography and art exhibitions and documentaries based on the theme of Partition were shown to the public totally free of cost. In between dealing with the festival’s post-event issues and going on yet another travelling stint abroad, Images managed to garner an interview with the documentary-maker bent on uncovering real-world issues.

Your latest documentary, Lifting the Veil, that went on air recently focuses predominantly on the lives of Afghan women six years after their so-called liberation. How long did it take to make the documentary?
SOC: Lifting the Veil has got three names — it was released by Channel 4 with the name of Afghanistan Unveiled, CNN is releasing it as Lifting the Veil and my name for it is The Promise. The festival version is called the latter. I travelled from Kabul to Herat to Tahar, Talakand… basically from the capital to the west and up towards the north and north-east to villages, towns, cities to see what’s happened to the women there.
I travelled through Afghanistan for five weeks. It was one of the most fascinating journeys that I have ever undertaken. Partly because I didn’t have any language trouble, almost everyone spoke Urdu and because the country is spectacularly beautiful. It’s very sad to see such stark beauty contrasted against such stark poverty and destruction.

Was it safe travelling in Afghanistan for a woman where the effects of Taliban rule and the recent war on terrorism are still predominant?
SOC: I’ve worked in conflict zones for a long time now and safety is a very relative thing. Are you safe in Karachi? You could be shot outside your own home here, your car could be hijacked, you could be robbed. Similarly, you could be robbed in Rio de Janeiro or the slums that I worked in in South Africa.

I think that safety is a very relative term and when I go into dangerous situations I do not think about whether I’m safe. I think about whether the circumstances that I’m in require me to be more cautionary or take precautions.

Going armed with a camera to an individual or a group to talk to them about whatever situation they are in can be very intimidating for them. How do you get people to open up?
SOC: I start a film after I research it for about two months before I actually go in and film it. During that period I make a lot of connections with the people in that country through NGOs, individuals who I would have met during the course of my travels and basically people who connect me to others. Once I’ve built a relationship with them, they then introduce me to ordinary people in that country and when they filter, it becomes easier for those people to trust me.

Also, people are not hesitant to speak to me because of the fact that I’m a woman and I come from a third-world country myself. I’m able to relate to many of their issues because I see it happening in my own country. A lot of people find me easier to talk to than, for example, a western journalist who they can’t relate to on any level.

For example, while working in the slums in South Africa or in the Philippines, I could tell them: ‘Look, I’ve seen this. I’ve seen this poverty, I’ve seen this discrimination, I’ve see this class of society because I’ve grown up in one’. Even though those countries are across the planet or in another hemisphere, I am able to connect with those people and they realise that when they speak to me, it’s not that I am walking through the slums wearing my D&G top or something. I am there in the mud with them doing the things that I should be doing.

You have been accused of representing Pakistan in a negative light in your documentary, Reinventing the Taliban. Why?
SOC: I am very straightforward about what I do. I am not Pakistan’s PR agent. I am a journalist. And just because I am one of the few journalists who work for international television and have access to stories in Pakistan does not mean that I do not uncover those stories. Some people may think that I am not a patriot, but I believe that you’re a patriot if you actually point out the faults in your country so that these can be rectified. A lot of people feel that because I have exposure, because I am well-known per say in the international community, that I should only present stories that are favorable to Pakistan.
Quite honestly, I present a very balanced view. In Reinventing the Taliban, I showed the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) area of Pakistan which was becoming increasingly radical at the time. I did the film in 2003 when the radical elements were not there but I predicted that in the next three years, Pakistan will face a civil war, where you will have Islamists battling the moderates.

And what is happening today? What is Lal Masjid all about? If you watch Reinventing the Taliban you will think that I made it now. But I made it when the tribal belt of Pakistan was not as volatile as it is right now. The areas that I travelled to and the kind of people that I met in 2002-2003, I could never do now because it is extremely difficult to do so.

And of course that’s going to be a problem in this country and now everyone talks about it — its common drawing room conversation. In 2002-03 it wasn’t. And that’s why people didn’t like it and I think in some way I was a visionary. At least I was able to put forward the fact that I saw what was happening to my own country and it pained me to see it. I wanted other people to wake up and see that just because they live in your comfortable homes, in a large city, and no one is threatening the schools of their daughters and no one is threatening their wives.

Let’s face it. How many people are socially and politically active in this society? If you live in Karachi, the tribal belt seems so far away and so unknown to many of us. It’s not like we frequent that area or that we even know about it. How many of us have been to that part of Pakistan to know what’s happening over there? There is detachment because people don’t really care.

As a journalist, you’re taught that your job is to observe and not become a part of the observed. After having travelled and covered issues in conflict zones extensively, is it difficult for you not to get involved?
SOC: I’ve had a couple of circumstances where I’ve been very involved with people’s lives. I did a film in 2005 about a young man who stopped a suicide bomber, his name was Ghufraan Haider. He stopped a suicide bomber in Karachi at the mosque near the former KFC outlet in Karachis Gulshan-i-Iqbal area. He was very hurt and he comes from a very poor family. He sustained a lot of injuries, when he partially recovered, he was a key witness against the suicide bombers and based on his testimony, they (the bombers) got the death penalty. He was threatened openly in court and our government could not protect him. He fled overnight to a country in the Middle East and I helped him get asylum in Canada. So in that sense, I became increasingly involved in that case.
I did so because here was a young man who did something good, who should have been set as an example and instead, we ignored him. I was the only journalist to do a story on him for international television. I asked people in the military then: ‘This is a man, you should put him on a pedestal, you should tell other people that this is an example of what a Pakistani patriot is’. Instead, he now lives in Canada. It’s a loss for Pakistan to have lost someone like him.

Again, when I did a film in the earthquake zone, I became emotionally involved in the case of a woman who lost her husband and two children and who became a widow. She was getting propositioned by men and she had to leave for Karachi with 2 or 3 small children in tow. She’s struggling to make ends meet and I’ve been helping her get jobs.
Sometimes, you can’t distance yourself from these people just because you spend so much time with them, I’ve spent 4-6 weeks with such people and they become a part of who I am then. It becomes difficult for me to draw that line. And it’s not only in Pakistan. Sometimes being a human being comes before anything else.

What has been the most difficult documentary you have made so far?
SOC: The most difficult documentary that I have ever made was in East Timor. It was a small island, remote and difficult to gain access to. There was gang violence going on and a lot of times you had to look over your shoulder. The culture was very alien to me, it was a different society. But it was a beautiful country and had stunning beaches. Coming back to the gang violence, it was very difficult for me to penetrate the gangs.

Some would say you’re looking for trouble… that you have a death wish?
SOC: People have been known to say that about me. There is a tremendous feeling when you’re able to meet and understand situations. You see first-hand what all the fighting is about.

The one thing that I’ve learnt after being to all these places is that we’re not so bad in Pakistan. I mean, we have problems but we have a country. We’re not fighting to get a country. And if anything, travelling to conflict-riddled countries has made me more of a patriot because it made me realise that we have something that we really need to work to make better. I’ve seen what happens when things fall apart. And believe me, we do not want that to happen to us.

You have received a lot of accolades for your documentaries. What do you say about that?
SOC: Every film I did won something. Every film I did got some recognition. It has helped me know what I’m doing. There’s got to be something right to it and I should continue doing it. It’s a very lonely life doing what I do because you take off for months on end in locations and I’m married with a family. I miss a lot of important occasions… it’s a hard life.

Do you plan to show any documentaries of your here? Why didn’t you show any at the Shanaakht Festival?
SOC: I didn’t show any at Shanaakht because those films were about Partition and history and my films are very contemporary politics. I do try and show something at the KaraFilm Festival every year because that’s my only avenue through which I can reach out to Pakistanis.

However, I’m moving back to Karachi in December permanently and opening up a production house. I’m going to train journalists and film-makers to make quality film programmes for international television.

Have you ever thought about opening a documentary channel?
SOC: I want the freedom to be able to work for many channels, such as Channel 4, Al Jazeera International, CNN, Discovery Times, PBS, etc. I would like to have four or five people who become the core team and who do individual projects under the banner of Sharmeen Obaid Films. Hopefully, the idea is that there would be a select group of people who would be trained at an international level.

I don’t think I can make documentaries for domestic television because the idea of documentary films in Pakistan simply does not exist. The appreciation is not there and quite honestly, quality programming on Pakistani TV stations does not exist. I’m talking specifically in terms of documentary films.

What I would really like to do is make documentary films for PTV when I come back. I think PTV really needs to revive itself and regain the glory that it once had. I’ve always had an affinity to PTV and I would really like to have something to do with them when I get back, along with international television as well.

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