Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s work has consistently been radical and bold. Choosing subjects hard to approach, she has made movies on issues such as Afghan refugee children, child marriages, acid burn victims, and, most recently, honour killings. Her short documentaries Saving Face and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness have won Academy Awards in their respective categories. These topics are not easy to talk about and so they are better left unsaid or largely ignored in Pakistani society. This isn’t new; no society is innocent of ignoring its most pressing and disturbing issues. Yet, Obaid-Chinoy dives in head-on, piecing together stories from fragments traumatic events have left behind. She sheds light on things Pakistanis would rather not tackle, and her work often identifies the reason behind Pakistanis’ denial.
Many times, the conversations around sensitive topics such as these are often discouraged in Pakistani communities because exposing such matters is improper. The reasoning is that we cannot contribute to the backward and degenerate image the West already has of the country, and so the discourses are hushed up before they can even start. Obaid-Chinoy was facing the same criticisms when she was the target of the hashtag #WeDisownSharmeen. The argument is that she is disparaging and disrespecting her country by shining a light on these negative issues. She isn’t the only one who has had to deal with this sort of criticism. Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat also had to face similar backlash when she spoke of the “regressive” state of women in India to the Western press. And this criticism isn’t completely unfounded. This sentiment in Pakistan (and other South Asian countries) is largely in response to the West’s tendencies to revel in the misery of developing nations. Oftentimes, documentaries pander to Western audiences by specifically emphasizing and exaggerating the “barbaric” practices of Eastern countries to get global attention. Pakistanis are accusing Obaid-Chinoy for exploiting this to get fame and accolades.
However, Obaid-Chinoy’s work isn’t about how backwards and miserable conditions are in Pakistan, at least not when you sit down and seriously consider it. Obaid-Chinoy’s work is progressive and defiant. It emphasizes positive changes and victories in Pakistan as well as highlights the social and political issues the country is grappling with. In fact, her work is directly responsible for causing progressive social changes in Pakistani law and society. On the day of the Oscars, Obaid-Chinoy said, “This morning in Pakistan they sentenced two people … for an honour killing, so it’s already having some sort of reverberations. What more can a filmmaker ask for?” So it is obvious that her work is having real life impact that should be celebrated, yet some Pakistanis are still treating her like a traitor.
And therein lies the fact which the hashtag #WeDisownSharmeen misses. Obaid-Chinnoy is not making these documentaries for a Western audience but for Pakistanis. They just happen to gain Western attention but, ultimately, her work is not meant for them. To the contrary, her films are unashamedly Pakistani. They take no pause to consider Western audiences. The socio-political context isn’t narrated, there is no map to help you locate Pakistan, and Pakistani culture isn’t explained. Her films don’t do the work for you, but present facts and accounts, leaving the audience to either dismiss or dig deeper. Best of all, there is no white saviour complex. The people presented are Pakistani through and through; Pakistanis who expose the damages of their culture and Pakistanis who take responsibility for it. It is very obvious that her work isn’t made for the West. It’s made for Pakistanis to watch, contemplate, and act on.
In a country where men often speak for women and in a world where Pakistanis and other people of colour rely on white people to speak for them, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is an unapologetically resolute woman. Of her country, she said “I want the Pakistan that [my daughter] inherits to be better than the one that we currently live in.” This is why her dual Oscar wins matter. Not only is this positive press for Pakistan which is almost always talked about by the global audience in negative contexts, but Obaid-Chinoy’s films are reaffirming Pakistani identity in the face of ignorance and media bias. The message her work delivers is paramount, and her talent is undeniable. How can we doubt her motives?