On February 26, 2012, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani to win an Oscar, for her short documentary, Saving Face, about the female acid-attack victims of Pakistan. In her acceptance speech, she dedicated the award to “all the women in Pakistan who are working for change. Don’t give up on your dreams.”
Born and raised in Karachi, Obaid-Chinoy, 33, was educated at Smith College and Stanford University. While still an undergraduate at Smith, she applied for and received grants from her college and New York Times Television to produce her first film, the award-winning Terror’s Children, a profile of young Afghan refugees.
Obaid-Chinoy has produced more than a dozen award-winning films that explore volatile human rights issues. In 2003, she became the first non-American to receive a Livingston Award, which she won for International Reporting. In 2010, she received an Emmy for her documentary Pakistan: Children of the Taliban. This year she has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
And now, with an international audience after being awarded an Oscar by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Obaid-Chinoy continues to focus on the issues of her native land. Via e-mail from Karachi, she spoke to MORE about the success of Saving Face and how its publicity has created a platform for her in the fight to reform Pakistan’s laws on violence against women.
MORE: You were educated in America and launched your career in America. What compelled you to return to Pakistan?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: It is the responsibility of all Pakistanis who have the opportunity to obtain an education to use that for the good of their country. A significant part of my motivation to go to America to pursue my education stemmed from my desire to work for the development of Pakistan. At this point it is the highly educated and forward-thinking citizens of Pakistan who are keeping it afloat, and if they continue to return and give back to the country, it is just a matter of time before Pakistan overcomes this turmoil.
MORE: You have been telling the stories of Pakistan’s women and children for years; now that you’ve won an Oscar, how does that change what you are able to accomplish?
SOC: The Oscar win and the publicity have widened the impact of Saving Face. It allowed for the message of the film to be amplified to a greater audience than I ever expected. I will continue to tell the stories of women and children and other marginalized communities, but now I look forward to disseminating these stories to an even larger audience, and generating awareness across the globe.
MORE: You became the first Pakistani to be honored with an Academy Award. What has been the reception for you in your country?
SOC: The overwhelming response from Pakistan was unprecedented. Every Pakistani celebrated the Oscar, and many said it made them feel truly proud of their country. Young and budding filmmakers have been revived in terms of their motivation and have more faith in being acknowledged for their own work.
MORE: How does the Oscar win advance the cause of the women whose stories you told and those of others like them?
SOC: We have been planning to use Saving Face as a medium to motivate people to join the cause against acid violence, as well as to spread awareness in those areas where acid violence is rampant, through our outreach efforts. Since the Oscars, our support is growing exponentially. Besides encouraging this cause, it also garners attention toward violence against women overall.
MORE: How did the recent suicide of acid-attack victim Fakhra Yunus impact you?
SOC: While working on Saving Face, I learned just how severe the consequences of acid attacks are, and that the victim has to live with these consequences for the rest of her life. While the death of Fakhra Yunus was emotionally challenging, it was not surprising. The real tragedy is that it took a film and a suicide to bring this issue to the national conscience. One can only hope that the Pakistani government will take this as a wake-up call and pay more attention to violence against women.