Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s second Oscar for her short documentary A Girl in the River created the expected uproar in Pakistani circles and, as was also expected, most of the criticism aimed at her and her film is misdirected and based on not knowing enough facts and intellectual laziness. So let’s set the record straight.
Why does she always choose something negative in Pakistan to show to the rest of the world?
She doesn’t but let’s come back to that later. A documentary filmmaker is like a reporter or a feature writer. It is filmmaker’s discretion to pick up any subject he or she deems fit to explore. No one but the filmmaker has any say on this. If Sharmeen wants to focus on issues related to women in Pakistan, and no one in their right mind can argue that those issues aren’t real, it is her right to do so. If someone else wants to show a positive side of Pakistan, Sharmeen isn’t stopping them. But is it true that she portrays negative image of Pakistan? I haven’t seen A Girl in the River yet but I did see her previous Oscar winning documentary Saving Face and when I saw the same reaction for it from Pakistanis that Sharmeen is facing today, I was taken aback. It seemed like either the people who were accusing her of giving Pakistan a bad name had not seen the documentary or if they actually had then they and I must have seen two different documentaries. The one I saw was nothing but positive. Sure, it was about the victims of acid attacks but the focus of the documentary were people, Pakistani people, who interrupted their lives to help these women; a doctor taking regular breaks from his lucrative medical practice in UK to go to Pakistan to do reconstructive surgeries on these woman, a fashion icon walking out of the world of glamor to make life bearable again for the victims, a legislator dedicating all hours of the day to bring legislation out in the parliament to prevent future acid attacks. Saving Face can be summed up as, yes, there is a problem in Pakistan but there are people in Pakistan who Pakistanis who saw the problem and decided to do something about it. It showed that Pakistanis have the courage and empathy to deal with this issue on multiple levels without outside help. If that is negative, I don’t know what is called positive.
And let’s not forget that Sharmeen hasn’t just made these two documentaries. Last year she made Song of Lahore, a documentary about a Pakistani band preparing for and performing at Lincoln Center in USA. She is also responsible for creating Pakistan’s first computer-animated feature length movie 3 Bahadur which is a delight to watch. The simple reason for Saving Face and A Girl in the River getting Oscar nods in that they were based on heart-wrenching subjects that evoke deep sympathy for the victims in the hearts of people who really care.
What is she trying to achieve by all this?
Well, the simplest answer would be; she is following her passion like every true artist. She has the passion to report and she has the talent to pursue that passion. No other motive is required. But film is a strong medium, much stronger than print medium and residing here in USA, I witnessed that the screening of Saving Face evoked a lot of interest. Sharmeen was offered ideas and help wherever she went in North America and so did the Acid Survivor Foundation that was featured in the documentary. The documentary made Acid Survivor Foundation of Pakistan an internationally known name almost overnight. There is value in that. You cannot just scoff at it and dismiss it.
Why the Academy of motion picture arts only grants Oscars to something negative about Pakistan?
And then there is this “America-is-out-to-get-us-since-they-have-nothing-better-to-do” syndrome.
Numerous people asked me “would Americans make a documentary against themselves and would that get an Oscar” and whenever I was asked that or a similar question, I just marveled at the utter, to put it mildly, ignorance of the person asking the question. The answer to both the questions is yes. Here are some Oscar winning documentaries made by American individuals and media house, all feature length documentaries, not just shorts like Sharmeen’s two documentaries. Please note that these are just a sample few since I don’t intend to write a book on this topic.
Bowling for Columbine (2002) is a documentary about the gun violence in USA, its deadly impact on the society and how big gun lobby manipulates the gun trade and gun laws in USA.
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) starts with the story of an Afghan taxi driver who was beaten to death by American soldiers in detention and then expands to showing how US Army is involved in torturing prisoners of war (don’t even think about making anything like that in Pakistan).
Citizenfour (2014) is the story of Edward Snowden and talks in detail about illegal wiretapping done by the National Security Agency of United States.
Inside Job (2010) documents the greed and corruption in the financial sector of United States that caused the economic crash of 2000’s
And my personal favorite; Down and Out in America (1986), a documentary that covered the lives of poor people in USA, their sorrows, their hardships and how much of a disconnection is there between the perception and the reality when it comes to living in USA.
Let me also add that the Oscar for the best movie this was given to Spotlight; a movie based on the true events of American priests involved in child abuse. At the ceremony, the producers had brought some of the victims of that child abuse along to showcase to the entire world. I am just thankful they didn’t make that movie about Pakistani mullas or else it would be considered extreme American bias.
The fils listed above are just the Oscar winners. The list can go on and on and on. You name me an issue about USA, rapes, drugs, human trafficking, unfair policing, even obesity in USA and I will give you multiple documentaries made about those issues by Americans themselves.
In the end, I urge everyone to understand a very fine and important point; self-criticism is neither a strange nor a bad thing in the West. In USA, for example, it is a common practice. The biggest critics of USA are Americans such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Gore Vidal (most of the stats of USA’s misdeeds you hear coming out of the mouths of Pakistani pundits are taken from the likes of Chomsky). Whenever some Pakistani wins an honor like an Oscar, it puts Pakistan on the international map but even more importantly, when a Westerner watches something like Saving Face or A Girl in the River he or she can identify with it and appreciates the fact that Pakistanis are a people who are capable of self-criticism. It does not distort Pakistan’s image. It actually elevates it. It tells the West that just like you, we are not afraid to look in the mirror. It brings Pakistan out of an unknown to a familiar territory of self-inspection to the Westerners. It shows them that while Pakistan has issues, and trust me they know that even without these documentaries, Pakistan is also involved in the soul-searching to look for the solutions for these problems and any ideas are welcome. If you don’t believe me, watch these documentaries with a roomful of Americans and you will see that after the movie, instead of bashing Pakistan, the discussion would be how the issue in question can be solved.