When Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s name was called as an Academy Award winner on Sunday night, few people watching had heard of the Pakistani-born documentary maker. Fewer still in her second home, Canada.
Obaid-Chinoy won the documentary-short Oscar for the film Saving Face, with co-director Daniel Junge, and since then her phone has been ringing frantically. Raised in Pakistan but a Toronto resident since 2004 and a Canadian citizen, she is being hailed by the Pakistani press for having won that country’s first Oscar.
“It really has been insane. There are so many people calling that I’m overwhelmed myself,” she said.
Saving Face, which will be shown in North America on HBO on March 8, tracks Pakistani plastic surgeon Mohammad Jawad, who returns to Pakistan from his home in London to operate on women whose faces have been maimed by acid attacks. Underlying the violence are the deep cultural inequalities suffered by woman and their fight for justice.
“I’m interested in bringing a voice to marginalized communities around the world,” Obaid-Chinoy said, noting that she has done 16 documentaries, all for TV, many of which deal with issues outside Pakistan. “You’ll see that themes run through them: children and human rights, the effects of war, and woman. Those are the things that I pick up. It’s often those communities that don’t have a voice.”
Obaid-Chinoy comes from a middle-class Pakistani background, but she said that “I saw very early in my life the divide between the rich and poor, and the problems that affected the country. I’m generally quite an angry person, and I like to channel my anger toward something creative.”
She betrayed none of that, however, in her smiling appearance at Monday night’s Oscar ceremony or her bright voice on the phone. She has become increasingly prominent in this area of international documentary work, has written for The Globe and Mail and numerous other publications, spoke at the 2010 TED Conference and won an Emmy Award that year for her previous film, Pakistan: Children of the Taliban.
Obaid-Chinoy said she spends three to four months a year in Toronto, where she keeps a small office, mainly for the distribution and DVD sales of her documentaries. The rest of her time is spent in Pakistan, where her husband and daughter now live.
Filming difficult social issues in Pakistan isn’t easy, she said. “Working in any country where you want to talk about the kind of issues that other people don’t want to talk about is difficult. But I have a lot of support on the ground, and people realize the power of documentary films – and how these stories can make a difference.”
She added that “because of my last two projects, I have been spending more time in Pakistan and doing more work out of there, and spending time in Toronto. But Toronto is my second home,” she said.
“I have very strong Canadian connections. My daughter was born there a year and half ago. But because of the nature of my job, I need to be in countries where I can get the stories that I am looking at.”
Obaid-Chinoy had moved to Toronto after completing graduate work at California’s Stanford University to be with her Canadian husband. According to a local newspaper, when her father didn’t want her to go to college in the U.S., she went on a hunger strike until the family relented.
She is currently speaking to the National Film of Canada about developing a new film from Canada.