Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the multiple Academy Award winning filmmaker, talks to Instep from Russia about her recent projects including the animated series, Stories for Our Children, as well as her upcoming HBO Sports documentary, Student Athlete.
Two-time Academy Award winning journalist and filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, has an impressive, diverse body of work. Her documentaries, particularly A Girl In The River, which was about honor killing, helped in bringing about positive change and influenced the actual law after it was screened at the Prime Minister House. She brought Pakistan its first ever Oscar for her hard-hitting ode to acid-victims through Saving Face and catered to children by producing the country’s first animated feature, 3 Bahadur.
What more can she possibly achieve? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. But while you ponder on that, Chinoy has moved on to other projects.
Her latest outing is an animated web series, Stories for Our Children that chronicles real-life events of inclusion and diversity by shedding light upon inspiring figures like the late humanitarian, Abdul Sattar Edhi and the Balochi karate wonder, Kulsoom Hazara, among others. She’s also working on a documentary for HBO Sports titled Student Athlete, which uncovers the complex rules of amateur athletics in America.
Chinoy speaks to me all the way from Russia, where she’s shooting yet another intriguing documentary surrounding 15-year-old Pakistani teenager, Ahmed Raza, documenting his journey from Sialkot to conducting the coin-toss for the match between Brazil and Costa Rica at the FIFA World Cup this year.
In this conversation with Instep, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy opens up about making her audience take the bitter with the sweet, #MeToo movement and more.
Instep: What has your experience been like filming Ahmed Raza and his family’s journey to FIFA World Cup?
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (SOC): Ahmed’s story is very inspiring because his grandfather and his father, both, stitched footballs and Ahmed wants to break that cycle by becoming a football player himself. The team traveled to Sialkot and filmed them at their home, and Ahmed’s school and football ground.
And then when he found out he was going to Russia, he felt like he was the luckiest boy because he said that just by walking to the field there, he will raise the hopes of Pakistanis, that we can collectively, one day, go off and play in a world-class FIFA match. I think with so many people that followed his story and journey, they really saw themselves in it as well and we look forward to releasing the film with Coca Cola.
Instep: Your web series, Stories for Our Children comprised moving, real-life stories. Tell us a little about what made SOC Films take up this idea and why was animation the right medium for it?
SOC: Stories for Our Children came out of a series of workshops that we had been conducting in low-income schools and community centers, engaging with children, across Pakistan. Bringing storytellers, introducing technology, virtual reality, dealing with issues of climate change and simply getting children to think critically about who we are as a country and what their role is.
Last year, we flew down an animator in collaboration with the Chicago Children’s Film Festival, George Berlin and he came under a series of workshops. We partnered with Google and Lenovo to empower children to tell their stories on tablets and by teaching them animation. Out of these workshops came the realization that children today have very little content that they can relate to and we thought about telling them stories about our people, our heroes, our cities, our lives and to get them to think about what inter-faith harmony is like.
We talked about what influence parents have on their children, and how they can engage with them to make them better human beings and shape their futures by inculcating ethics in them. Stories for Our Children is as much about heroes as it is about being a good citizen because essentially each story is about a parent and a child.
Instep: Your cinematic installments of 3 Bahadur took local animation to celluloid. What made Stories for our Children an online venture?
SOC: Stories for Our Children is distributed for free since it’s part of our community out-reach program. The widest dissemination we felt we could get would be on digital and we’ve also taken it onto our mobile cinema - the first of its kind in Pakistan that goes from small-towns to villages, right across the country, sharing stories with children and opening up their eyes to animated content as well as real-life heroes. The best way to reach the grass-roots’ level was to make it accessible to everyone.
Instep: You are also co-directing HBO Sports’ documentary, Student Athlete. What made you take up this project?
SOC: Student Athlete was a story that came to me via Steve Stoute and Maverick Carter. LeBron James is the executive producer, and Steven and Maverick came to me as human-rights’ filmmaker to talk about the exploitation of African-Americans in college sports. And when I began to look into the system and understand what truly happens, I bought on Trish Dalton, who’s a friend of mine, to co-direct the film with me. We felt it was very important to talk about this billion-dollar industry that exists in America and the exploitation of young people on whose backs this industry rests, but aren’t paid anything.
Instep: You’ve constantly experimented as a storyteller. When you’re getting into a documentary, what is the process like?
SOC: First and foremost, I am a storyteller. When I’m looking to make a documentary film, I’m looking for the best subjects and the best characters who can exemplify that story. To make the audience feel like they need to pay attention and understand and play their own role in ensuring that the practices, the stories and the injustices we are uncovering come to an end.
Which is why my subjects are varied, yes, but they all share one thing in common, they’re about human-rights’ abuses and injustices, they’re about marginalized communities, they’re about women and they all have an agenda, which is to get people to do something about those issues, to get people angry about them and to affect change in some manner.
Instep: What do you make of the increasing female participation in cinema, especially in the backdrop of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements?
SOC: I think it is extremely important to increase female participation in cinema, to empower more women to tell their stories, to empower more female filmmakers to direct blockbusters, big-budget films. I think that in 2016 for instance, I was the only woman of color to win an Academy Award that year and it speaks volumes about the number of women that are actually working in important positions or given the opportunity to tell stories.
I hope that the #MeToo movement has opened up the eyes of a lot of people in and outside the industry so more women will now be given the opportunity to tell the stories they’ve always wanted to tell, but have never had the resources to tell them.
Instep: A lot of the criticism that comes your way is because your fiction and non-fiction storytelling is based on saying it how it is. Over the years, has the approach changed?
SOC: I think it is important to mirror reality. I’m the kind of filmmaker who engages with the audiences to make them think about issues. My motivation has always been the same and it is to get people to understand the nuances behind each issue (that we encounter) and to be motivated to do something about it - whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I look at society and I use that as a mirror.
Most of my work is a reflection of who we are as people. Even when I’m telling stories to children or adults, even when I’m filming within or outside the country, it is always about society, and the men, women and children, and what they have to endure. I don’t think it will change because every filmmaker has a different approach and mine has always been very consistent I believe and I’ve been a filmmaker since I was twenty one.