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Pakistani-Canadian Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on diversity in the doc world

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy poses with her Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject, "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness," in the press room during the 88th Oscars in Hollywood on February 28, 2016.


Although Canadians were up for a rash of Oscars at Sunday's Academy Awards, only Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy emerged triumphant. The Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker earned her statuette for her short documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a searing look at the long and disgraceful history of honour killings in Pakistan. The afternoon after her win, and just a few days before her new documentary, Song of Lahore, opens in Toronto, the 37-year-old spoke with The Globe and Mail about diversity in the doc world.

As a result of the film, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to change the laws that allow honour killings to persist. Has there been any update on that?

We had the first screening of the film at the Prime Minister's office last Monday, and those who are redrafting the law were there, too. Work has begun, and I've been told that some of the progress will be shared with us in the next couple of days, and in the next two or three months this law will hopefully be passed. Yesterday, it was also encouraging that the Prime Minister issued another statement reiterating that they were redrafting the law.

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It must be a heavy weight on your shoulders to know that your film may change the law.

It is every social-justice documentary filmmaker's dream to start a discourse that leads to a change in the law. There can be no greater reward.

Is that why you got into filmmaking?

I got into it because I wanted to better inform audiences about the issues of the world, and I wanted to have a few of my films used for advocacy purposes. Many have done exactly that.

Did you find it at all jarring then on Sunday to be a social-justice advocate in the thick of the high-gloss entertainment industry?

I'll tell you something, the thing about being at the Academy Awards and having a film nominated is that it gets the global press on the issue you're trying to highlight. For a documentary filmmaker, that's fantastic. We live in the dredges, working down and dirty in all these different places, but it's nice to dress up and be with fellow filmmakers – because when you strip away all the layers of glitz and glamour, it's just a fraternity of filmmakers supporting one another.

And this isn't your first Oscar, either, having previously won for Saving Face.

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But it is a very special Academy Award. I was able to bring my family: my siblings, husband and mother. My mother got married at 17 and wanted to be a journalist, so looking at her walking down the carpet, I could see the difference in a single generation – what education and empowerment can do to a woman. She gave up her life to have six children, and here comes the next generation, my sisters and I, who went off to college and our lives turned out to be very different.

You had an interesting quote [at the Oscar podium], saying "This is what happens when determined women get together." How do you feel the documentary world is doing in terms of having an equal playing field when it comes to gender?

My category had a number of women nominated, and that shows that women are available to be directors or camera operators or anything in film, but that the threshold of entry is lower in the shorts field. That's where you see more diversity. I wish that playing field could be lowered in the feature-doc category, or in the narrative categories, but that will only happen when you have women in decision-making roles. You have several women now as studio executives, and hopefully they will greenlight more scripts that deal with women's issues. But women also need to go to the cinema more to support those films. When women's-issue films earn more money, you'll see more scripts get approved.

There's also a lack of diversity when it comes to racial representation.

I'm a minority, too: I'm a Muslim, I'm brown, but there were so many countries and people represented in the categories that aren't the traditional ones: the short categories, the documentary categories. The filmmakers from Chile behind Bear Story won; I'm a Pakistani-Canadian. So I think that diversity in the academy exists, but not in the traditional fields: best actor, best picture. But if you ask me, diversity does work. I've been back twice.

And now you have Song of Lahore opening this week. Do you find there are more projects to balance in the documentary world than the feature industry, where films take longer to produce?

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I. Am. A. Workaholic. At any given point, I have some project closing and another opening – it just has to do with the cycle of filmmaking itself. The last couple of years have been manic, with editing, production, promotion, and travelling between places like Bangladesh and Haiti. And I was pregnant. Remind me to never do that again.

Song of Lahore runs March 4-10 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto. A Girl in the River airs March 7 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO Canada.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Barry Hertz is the deputy arts editor and film editor for The Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Executive Producer of Features for the National Post, and was a manager and writer at Maclean’s before that. His arts and culture writing has also been featured in several publications, including Reader’s Digest and NOW Magazine. More


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