Filmmaker and activist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy knows how to seize an audience’s attention.
Whether speaking directly to a captive audience, like the one in Franklin & Marshall’s Mayser Gymnasium Oct. 11, or to complacent governments via her award-winning filmmaking, Obaid-Chinoy’s voice is powerful and unwavering. She is ready and eager to tackle the world’s most difficult subjects. She uses her voice to advocate for those who lack visibility.
Obaid-Chinoy spoke during Common Hour, the weekly community discussion conducted every Thursday classes are in session, as part of her two days on campus as this year’s Mueller Fellow. The Mueller Fellowship Endowment was established in 1980 by the Mueller family to bring distinguished speakers to F&M to participate in conversations with the campus community. Past Mueller Fellows include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, legendary NBA basketball player, author and activist, and Amory Lovins, a physicist and environmental activist.
Since childhood, Obaid-Chinoy has been asking hard questions. She grew up in Pakistan, a country known for its history of systemic oppression of women. At 14, she started writing articles in a local English-language newspaper to ask difficult questions that she noticed nobody was willing to examine.
“I am a storyteller,” she said. “I tell stories about marginalized communities, about men, women and children that people want to ignore.”
Despite pushback from members of the community, she continued to write. Throughout her more than two decades telling these stories, she has faced a lot of intimidation, including death threats. Her response has been to stand strong. “I refuse to be silenced,” she said. To her, these threats only prove that she’s having an impact.
After attending college in the U.S., she returned to Pakistan in December 2001. At home, she was struck by the number of Afghan refugee children on the streets and realized that nobody was talking about the youngest victims of the war. She decided that visual journalism was the means through which she could best tell these stories. She created a proposal for the film she hoped to make and sent it to every production house she could think of. After a series of rejections, she reached out to The New York Times; they liked her proposal and invited her to come to New York to present her work. They promised to fund her first film.
She told the audience that this experience taught her, “If a door hasn’t opened for you, it’s because you haven’t kicked hard enough.”
In every film Obaid-Chinoy makes, she sets out to simultaneously tell the stories of marginalized communities and to provoke real change by shining a light on often overlooked issues. Thus far, she has exposed the worlds of acid attacks on women in Pakistan, xenophobia in South Africa, and Iraqi children traumatized and orphaned by war.
Her film, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” follows a woman facing social pressure to “forgive” relatives who tried to kill her in an “honor killing.” The film was one of two of her documentaries to receive an Academy Award—she was the first Pakistani to win an Oscar. “The Girl in the River” prompted a response from Pakistan’s prime minister; he invited her to screen the film and afterward declared, “There is no honor in honor killing.” She held him to that statement by reminding him of his pledge to change laws that excused honor killing during her Oscar acceptance speech. He kept his promise.
“A brave woman’s testimony did that,” she said, referencing the woman featured in the film.
After an hour of sharing some of the world’s darkest stories, Obaid-Chinoy left the audience with a reminder that she tells these stories from a place of optimism and hope for the future. “The human spirit is very resilient and it continues to go on,” she said. “There are many battles that we all need to fight. …Hope keeps me going every single day.”