February 13, 2017 8:00 pm JST
Asia's Standouts

A Pakistani director tackles taboos

Academy Award-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy uses her camera to shine a light

YUJI KURONUMA, Nikkei staff writer

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's unblinking look at the tradition of "honor killings" won the Pakistani filmmaker her second Academy Award. (Photo by Akiyoshi Inoue)

NEW DELHI -- In eastern Pakistan, a 19-year-old girl was beaten and threatened at gunpoint because she wanted to marry the man she loved. When she stepped out of her home, her uncle caught her, shot her, put her in a bag and dumped her in a river.

This horrific event was an attempted "honor killing," an old custom that persists in some Muslim and other communities in parts of South Asia and the Middle East. The men who commit the murders are often hailed as heroes for redeeming the honor of the families "disgraced" by marriages or relationships that had not received parental consent.

Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, 38, featured the girl who survived the attack in her documentary "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness." The 38-minute film immediately sparked heated debate in Pakistan on its release in 2015, which culminated in the national parliament making "honor killing" a crime punishable by 25 years in prison. The documentary won Chinoy her second Academy Award. "If a film can galvanize a country into thinking about [the victims], there can be no greater reward for a filmmaker."

Her films have zoomed in on the creeping radicalism in Muslim societies, whether it be riots by men demanding more fundamentalism or militias that condition children to be suicide bombers.

Wake-up call

Her own wake-up call came when she was a teenager in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. While being driven to her elite school, she saw a teenager begging on the street. "This world is not fair," she told her mother. To which her mother replied, "If you have questions, why don't you write about it?"

Chinoy heeded those words, writing articles for local newspapers at age 14 and later going to the U.S. to study journalism. She was there when the 9/11 attacks occurred and the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan because it refused to extradite Osama bin Ladin, the founder of al-Qaida, the Muslim militant group that carried out the attacks.

Very few people around her in the U.S. had ever met an Afghan. Feeling that this needed to change, she put down her pen and picked up a camera. Chinoy said she made her first film, "Terror's Children," because, "Everyone was talking about the war in Afghanistan, but no one was talking about the children and how war had affected them."

Chinoy began making films about her home country in 2003. When Pakistan turned toward the U.S. after supporting the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, the opposition became radicalized, threatening national unity. She has attracted considerable criticism for shining a spotlight on her nation's darker sides, but Chinoy remains undaunted. "Someone like me, who is traveling [between] two worlds, would be able to perhaps tell that story," she said.

Chinoy was born in 1978, the year after a military coup shook up society. She grew up amid the rise of a more rigorous form of Islamism. "My parents spoke about the freedoms they enjoyed in dress, concerts, etc.," she said. "The movie industry was flourishing, cabarets existed. It was a very different lifestyle. On Sundays, bands played in the streets of Karachi." Through the nostalgic reminiscences of her parents and grandparents, she learned that her country had once been a peaceful, secular society.

"Artists, not terrorists"

Her film "Song of Lahore," released in 2015, features a group of musicians no longer able to perform due to the tightening grip of Islamic rule. Some musicians who played indigenous instruments found their outlet in jazz, a totally foreign art form. After receiving rave reviews online, they were invited to the U.S. to perform. "Pakistanis are artists, not terrorists," said conductor Nijat Ali.

"I wanted younger generations to connect with an older generation, to understand what they had gone through and to appreciate Pakistan's rich musical history," Chinoy said.

The Pew Research Center of the U.S. predicts that by 2030, Pakistan will overtake Indonesia as home to the world's largest Muslim population, at about 260 million people. Some statistics show that about 60% of all Muslims live in Asia. As globalism takes deeper root, racial and religious conflicts will only continue to escalate unless, with the help of people like Chinoy, cultures start taking an honest look at themselves and each other.

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