The first Pakistan to win an Emmy award and on her way to becoming an Academy Award nominee, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy believes in the honesty and integrity of investigative journalism. With over 14 documentary films to her credit she attributes the success of her journalistic career to perseverance and hard work constituting her work ethic.
She shares with Blue Chip heartfelt stories from her career as an investigative journalist and a filmmaker, the obstacles she faced in Pakistan and abroad and how she has been able to overcome criticism and achieve great success in her field of work.
What was the motivation behind choosing investigative journalism as a career choice?
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: “I began writing investigative pieces at the age of fourteen as a way to contribute to critical conversation in Pakistan. I was always interested in telling stories of marginalized communities; people whose voices were never heard and whose compelling stories needed to be shared. I continued to pursue journalism while I was at Smith and wrote for a number of Canadian and American publications. I was a senior at Smith College when the tragic events of September 11th occurred, and like everybody else I was glued to the television. I watched as reporters who were unfamiliar with the dynamics of Central Asia were sent to cover the Afghan War, and instantly knew what I wanted to do: I needed to bridge this gap by telling stories from the East in a way that was easily understandable to the West. That December, I returned to Pakistan and spent time in refugee camps and went back to the US with a documentary proposal in hand. At the age of twenty two, with no prior experience, I sent letters to eighty news companies and organizations in the US, and was declined by all of them. Eventually, my luck turned; I found the contact information for Bill Abrams, the president of New York Times Television and emailed him right away. Fifteen minutes later, he wrote back and asked me to take a train to New York to pitch my proposal to him and other executives. A few days later, I left New York with training, funding, and the daunting challenge of making my first film.”
Pakistan’s Taliban Generation received an Emmy and Saving Face has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination, making you the first Pakistani to have achieved these distinctions. How do you feel about this and what impact has it had on your life/career?
SOC: “These recognitions reinforce the fact that you can come from anywhere, but if you work hard and strive for excellence your work will be appreciated at the highest levels. I am humbled and honored that my work has received such acclaim. Right now, I am keeping my fingers crossed about the Academy Awards and am hoping for a nomination. I am currently also in the process of setting up my production company, because I want to strive to bring quality programming to television screens across Pakistan as well. I want to inculcate the same work ethics in the next generation of directors in Pakistan.”
You have highlighted pertinent causes through your documentaries, more so for the international audience than the one at home. What is the reasoning behind this?
SOC: “When I started making documentary films in 2001, there were no privatetelevision channels in Pakistan. I was interested in telling visually compelling stories and the only way to do so was through television channels in the US and UK. I was also interested in making documentary films in other countries and opportunities of that nature were impossible to come by in Pakistan. Later, when Pakistani television channels flooded the market, I contacted a few to discuss documentary ideas, but sadly none of them were interested in quality investigative journalism. Our channels are driven by talk show hosts and their agendas. However, I feel that after working on more than 14 films, I can take a break from the international market and coerce a local television channel to air a documentary film series I am currently developing.”
What has been the worst criticism you have faced in your journalistic career? And how did you deal with it?
SOC: “In 2004, I worked on a documentary film called Re-inventing the Taliban; I travelled through the tribal belt of Pakistan tracking the emergence of the Taliban. When the film was released, many Pakistani’s felt that it exaggerated the presence of the Taliban in Pakistan; I was told that the Taliban were an Afghan phenomenon not a Pakistani one. There was a prevalent ostrich mentally in Pakistan about our failing state of affairs and unfortunately people were soon proven wrong. Terrorists started attacking Pakistan indiscriminately around the same time as the film’s release. My film was meant to be a wakeup call, and I wouldn’t have minded the criticisms if I was wrong, and in this case I wish I had been wrong. However, I was right; The Taliban were Pakistani, they were in Pakistan and had a Pakistani agenda – they were ready to take on the state and its people.”
What projects is the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan working on presently?
SOC: “CAP has a number of active projects at the moment such as the Oral History Project in which we collect and archive firsthand accounts of Pakistan’s history. Since our inception, we have collected over 600 interviews and 40,000 images that range from rare partition related documents to personal family pictures. These narratives tell the story of Pakistan through the experiences of some of our earliest citizens, and have been archived for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
We use our vault of resources to host exhibitions that speak to a variety of aspects of being a Pakistani. Our last exhibition, ‘This is my story: Dialogue with Pakistan’ showcased the impact of violence and terrorism on the fabric of Pakistani society through the work of sixteen artists. Our next exhibition, ‘A State of Being So Divided’ will commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh and will highlight the lasting impact partition has had on both Bangladesh and Pakistan. CAP also works with the educational system through our School Outreach Tour. Our teachers visit four schools weekly, and hold social studies classes that teach students about the history and geography of Pakistan. CAP trains teachers, creates curriculums and creates animations in order to make the learning experience as interactive and fun as possible. We have received an overwhelmingly positive response from our students and hope to expand our programme in the near future.”
Keeping in view the various engagements you have in different capacities, how do you successfully manage your professional life along with being a wife and a mother?
SOC: “Although it is challenging at times to balance family, work and travel, it is far from impossible. I am lucky to have a supportive family who have never held me back and have in fact pushed me to work even harder. My colleagues call me a workaholic, which I admit is true; the only true sacrifice I have made is that of sleep.”
Having won so many awards, what do you attribute your success to?
SOC: “I attribute my success to my parents, my husband and to the people I have worked with. I also feel a large part of my success is because I never take no for an answer, and persevere regardless of the hurdles placed before me. This strategy has never failed me and continues to define my work ethic today. I am also not afraid to experiment and believe that in order to succeed one must be ready to fail first.”
There are presently a lot of young and budding film makers in Pakistan, with promising scripts in hand but lack of funds to take projects forward. What would be your advice to them?
SOC: “There is a common misconception about the cost and capital needed to make films; you can now make a film with an iPhone! I feel a lot of young filmmakers are waiting for their big break to fall into their laps, and that is never going to happen. I would advise filmmakers to pursue their passion regardless of the fact that they are working with a budget: use what you have, tell your story with whatever tools you have available to you and don’t be afraid to take risks. Put your work online, experiment and be open to positive criticism. Make a film, make another film, practice, and surely the break will come.”
You have interacted with all sorts of individuals and communities across the globe, dealing with topics such as history, identity and culture in your documentaries. Please share any interaction or experience that stands out in memory for any particular reason.
SOC: “In 2008 I went undercover to a brothel in Syria which was masquerading as a dance club. Iraqi girls as young as 11 and 12 were sold to wealthy Arab men from Gulf states. These girls were sold to the highest bidder by their own mothers. They were Iraqi refugees living in Syria, some of them were middle class educated families who had run out of money. There were no jobs, very little food and they felt that this was their only way to survive.
I remember thinking to myself that this could be Pakistan and that we don’t realize how lucky we are to have a country. If things do not work out for us, we could find ourselves in a similar position in a few years. When I left the club, I met a young girl named Jinan. She had been held captive for eight months and was drugged and subjected to repeated rape until one day she escaped by jumping out of a third floor window and was rescued by a group of nuns. Jinan came from an educated family but they had been killed in Iraq. As a journalist, you are supposed to a keep a distance from your subjects, but I felt I could not abandon her and worked with the UN to get her refugee status in Canada. She now lives in Montreal and I was able to meet with her two years ago when I was screening a film there.”