In 2012 Time Magazine included her in their list of 100 most influential people in the world. That same year Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Academy Award for Saving Face. Her other films include Transgenders: Pakistan's Open Secret and Pakistan's Taliban Generation. She shared her fears and hopes about Pakistan and the impact of the impending US withdrawal with Firstpost at the just concluded Jaipur Literature Festival.
What has the impact of winning the Academy Award for Saving Face on your work?
Since winning the Academy Award two things have happened. One is that any film that I make, any subject that I touch, the voice has been amplified because of the recognition of the Oscar. But there is a problem. As documentary filmmakers when we want to get to the story we have to be invisible. We have to get down to the nitty gritty and get into areas that are difficult to get into. The more famous you become, the more recognisable you become, the more people know who you are makes it harder sometimes to get the real story. So it’s a catch-22 situation.
Since Saving Face you have worked on a film about children affected by war. How serious is the problem?
I reported on children and war in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Children who have lived in the war zones will carry the scars they have received for their entire adult lives. When you ask a group of 9-10 year olds to draw their hopes and dreams, they are drawing bombs falling and people dying and homes getting destroyed. In the areas where there is conflict there is no access to education for children, no access to healthcare. You are finding that an entire generation is going to grow up without schooling. Pakistan already has a dismal literacy level. Now with the conflict you find that education, health, women’s rights are all taking a back seat. And children are always going to be affected the most.
Children who are vulnerable are getting recruited into this war by the recruiters of the Taliban. They are not allowed to watch television or radio or anything that will give them an alternative explanation. They read the Quran in Arabic which they don’t understand. They are being brainwashed into becoming human bombs. They are heavily drugged and the trigger is usually with someone else. They are robots.(At an earlier session at JLF, Chinoy spoke about filming in a radical madrasa where the leader in charge made protestations about how they preach peace and don’t send innocents to war. But when she told him you are winning the war and he thought the camera was not running, he laughed and said “As long as there are sacrificial lambs, we will win.”)
The impact on children is now slowly coming to the front because we have been at war for 10 years now. There are some NGOs working on the issue. But as a society, we don’t have an infrastructure for social services. We don’t have psychologists to speak with children to gauge impact war is having, we don’t have counseling services to speak with families about trauma. People are just learning to deal with war and grief themselves and children cannot deal with this trauma on their own.
What do you think will be the impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?
The retreat, and I call it a retreat, is happening in such a haphazard manner. The Americans have asked the Pakistanis to release 100s of Afghani Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails who were arrested on America’s behest in the first place. What are these hardline fighters who have been tortured in our jails going to do when they are released? They are not going to give up their way of life and melt into society. Of course not. Especially with the retreat that is taking place, they are going to fight. I strongly believe that for them the biggest prize is Pakistan – warm water port, flourishing economy compared to Afghanistan, infrastructure is intact. Why wouldn’t you want a country that is armed with nuclear weapons when you can try make a pass for it? Why Afghanistan when you can have Pakistan? And they are buoyant. They have just won this war. The Afghan war has been won by the Taliban.
Does that open the door for another military takeover in Pakistan?
I personally think this is no longer an issue of military or civilian government. The Taliban will assassinate members of the Pakistani military, Pakistani intelligence, civil society leaders. There are two wars going on in Pakistan. There is the drone war where thousands of civilians as well as Taliban fighters are dying. And there is an active insurgency by the Taliban against the state of Pakistan. When the war in Afghanistan comes to an end supposedly, who is left to fight in Afghanistan when they are all gone? Well, you have Pakistan to fight in.
Meanwhile Indo-Pak relations are not good. There was a move to disinvite Pakistani artistes like you from the Jaipur Literature Festival.
When we take two steps forward there are people on both sides of the border who have a vested interest in keeping India and Pakistan at war forever who then decide that well right something needs to happen. Why is it that every time the civilian government lifts visa restrictions or has cultural exchanges something happens on the border between the militaries? When we limit cultural exchanges, when we limit people to people contact it allows hate to grow, it allows misunderstandings to grow, it allows misconceptions to thrive. That is when they win and it is our job, for active civil society on both sides of the border, to make sure that our voices are louder than theirs. The very fact that there are Pakistanis at Jaipur and there are Indians heading to Karachi for the literary festival is hopeful. But if Jaipur can have Pakistanis come here why can’t the IPL have Pakistani cricket players? Or why are Pakistani hockey players getting sent back? Why are musicians not allowed to perform?
How has civil society in Pakistan been looking at the anti-rape protests here?
The very fact that civil society in India has come out in such large numbers onto the street is very, very encouraging for people like myself. It might be that a horrific incident made people come out. But we are very complacent people. We don’t come out on the streets. That very fact that we are coming out speaks volumes of our civil society and what social media has been able to do with this generation. In Pakistan to be honest you organise a protest and people press like to it. Coming out onto the street is a different ballgame. But recently with the Quetta bombing and almost a 100 people getting killed you have people coming out onto the street and saying how long will we continue to kill our Shia minority in Pakistan? For change to happen you need to open your front door and physically be somewhere. Pressing like on Facebook is not creating change.
Hafiz Saeed has said Shah Rukh Khan is welcome in Pakistan. Your thoughts?
Listen to what Sharmeen has to say here.