Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy made history by winning Pakistan’s first Oscar four years ago. Now she’s back in Hollywood, hoping to scoop a second Academy Award for her harrowing film about a teenage girl shot in the face by her own family.
But while other Oscar nominees obsess about hair and make-up, the 37-year-old filmmaker has a much bigger fight on her hands: how to stop honour killings in Pakistan, where she says more than 1,000 women are murdered each year by male relatives for allegedly bringing shame on the family.
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness tells the story of 19-year-old Saba who was beaten, shot and thrown into the river after she ran off to marry her fiance, whom her family initially accepted — and then decided was too poor.
The 40-minute film goes head to head with four other nominees in the documentary short subject category at Sunday’s Oscars in Hollywood.
Survivors of honour killings are rare and the film offers a stark look at the pain — physical and emotional — inflicted on Saba, her extraordinary resilience and ultimate failure to see her father and uncle convicted.
They beat her, shot her in the face and dumped her in a burlap sack in the river.
At the last moment, she tilted her head, meaning the bullet grazed her cheek instead of shattering her skull. Somehow she managed to cling to the bushes and pull herself out of the water. She went to police and to hospital.
Obaid-Chinoy, who read about her ordeal one morning in the newspaper, tracked her down and filmed Saba’s story over eight to nine months in 2014.
In Pakistan, a loophole in the law allows the perpetrators of so-called honour killings to get off scot-free if they are pardoned by their family.
Saba initially seeks a conviction, but eventually relents under the weight of pressure from her brother-in-law and community elders who say it is better to resolve enmity than let it fester.
Obaid-Chinoy wants to change that. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hosted a screening of the film in Islamabad last week and has promised to rid Pakistan of the crime by tightening up the legislation.
The filmmaker told AFP she had hoped for a positive response but admitted such an unprecedented reaction had taken her by surprise.
“If we get this law passed, it will be all worth it,” she said by telephone from Los Angeles after flying in from Pakistan, battling jet lag and an avalanche of pre-Oscar publicity.
“The biggest victory would be to get the legislation passed — to take forgiveness off the table, to have a law that deters killing women in the name of honour and for people to realize that this is a serious crime.”
Obaid-Chinoy has been here before. In 2012, she became an instant celebrity in Pakistan for winning an Oscar for Saving Face, a documentary that exposed the horrors endured by women who survive acid attacks.
Her success helped boost awareness about the particularly horrific crime, and the government in Punjab province started processing acid cases through anti-terrorism courts to offer women speedy justice, she said.
Obaid-Chinoy grew up in Karachi and studied in America, but is proud to live in Pakistan, believing the onus is on people like her to help the country improve.
Last year she started Pakistan’s first animated feature film studio and she says she will wear an outfit by Pakistani label Sana Safinaz to the Oscars.
Her Academy Award stands next to the television at home — with an Emmy on the other side. So has she dusted off a spot for a second Oscar?
“It’s a very tough year, I have to say, and there are some fantastic films in contention,” she told AFP.
Nor is it always smooth sailing at home.
Just this week she said a video went viral of a prominent cleric accusing her of being immoral and calling her a prostitute.
“I think if the film were to win an Academy Award, then the issue of honour killing, which doesn’t just affect women in Pakistan but affects women around the world, would really gain traction,” she said.
Obaid-Chinoy expects officials to start work on revising the honor killing legislation within weeks.
Punjab — Pakistan’s most populous province — has just passed laws protecting women’s rights and taking violence against women seriously.
“I think society is in a flux,” she said. “While there are very promising indicators… you also find pockets in Pakistan where violence against women is rising,” she said, listing southern Punjab, Baluchistan and the tribal belt.
In the film, Saba’s father Maqsood is unrepentant. Saba says she has not truly forgiven him. She now has a baby boy and has not travelled to Hollywood.
“She thought we were going to the World Cup,” Obaid-Chinoy said. Her office is helping Saba and when they last spoke, Saba asked if she had won. Not yet.