Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on “A Girl in the River”

March 8, 2016

 

When Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was 14, she scored her first byline in Pakistan’s popular English-language newspaper Dawn. Having grown up in an educated family in cosmopolitan Karachi, her life couldn’t have been more different than the subject of her latest documentary, the Oscar-winning “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness“.

Pakistani journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accepts the award for Best Documentary Short Subject Film for "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness" at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mario AnzuoniThe documentary, which premiered on HBO Monday night, follows the story of 19-year-old Saba Qaiser from rural Punjab, whose father and uncle tried to kill her after she married a man without their approval.

The film and the award prompted lots of conversation in Pakistan on “honour killings“, where brothers, fathers or uncles murder women to protect their family honour.

“I think this Oscar and the recognition that comes with it is the first step towards driving the conversation in the right direction,” said Obaid-Chinoy, 37, speaking by telephone from Karachi.

More than 500 men and women died in honour killings in 2015, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Most of these killings did not result in prosecutions.

After the win, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who screened the movie at his home, reiterated that his government was pushing a law to stop such killings.

“As a filmmaker, that’s the biggest reward — to see the tremendous change you can bring about in your country,” said Obaid-Chinoy, who won her first Academy award in 2012 for directing “Saving Face” a film on the horrors endured by women who suffer acid attacks in Pakistan.

The director came across Saba’s story in a local newspaper. She found the victim, who was recuperating from a bullet wound in a hospital in Gujranwala. In interviews with Saba’s family, the documentary reveals how the teenager had no support from anyone, including her mother and sister. They think Saba got what she deserved for bringing dishonour upon their family and making them outcasts.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy poses at a reception ahead of the 88th Academy Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, California, February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/Files

“The biggest challenge I had in making this documentary was not in dealing with the authorities or the police. It was countering the mindset of the people in Pakistani society who think it’s OK to kill someone in the name of honour,” Obaid-Chinoy said.

Saba’s father and uncle, who were in jail when Obaid-Chinoy was filming, were defiant. Maqsood, her father, repeatedly defends himself in Punjabi. “I’m an honorable man. I was obliged to do it.” Maqsood says he would have tried to kill Saba’s husband had their paths crossed.

Obaid-Chinoy argues with Maqsood. In that powerful moment, she emerges as a woman first and a journalist second — as someone who cannot stand by as Maqsood justifies his action on honour and on Islam. It’s a reminder of how far some people in some nations have to go toward acknowledging that women should be able to fall in love and marry without fearing for their lives, and an especially potent one as the world marks International Women’s Day on Tuesday.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow Havovi on Twitter @havovicooper and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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