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VIEW: Of Clarion Calls and Golden Statuettes / By Afrah Jamal

First Published in Daily Times /Saturday, March 17, 2012

Elegiac laments for a fading film industry are interrupted midway with news that could give the documentary film medium at least a new lease of life. It owes its resurrection to a young filmmaker, who mined troubling sound-bytes overheard in theatres where war, injustice or social disparity reigns supreme. Clips aired at the third Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) held earlier this year provided glimpses of her work, including the internationally acclaimed ‘Saving Face’. At the time, she had an Emmy stacked away for one documentary and was just weeks away from winning an Academy Award for another. At the time, she had been relentlessly crusading to rid societies of those anachronistic practices (among other ills) that weigh them down in the modern world. And — despite these glittering credentials — her work was largely unknown amongst Pakistanis.

The young Oscar nominee who took the stage that day would soon be the face of a burgeoning reform movement to challenge the recurring motif of gender-based persecution and perhaps, redress a terrible wrong. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, recently seen walking the red carpet in Los Angeles, found another one rolled out upon her return to Pakistan amid excited cries of Hilal-e-Imtiaz (the second highest civilian award), stronger legislation, and an awareness campaign against acid violence already underway. More importantly, she now gets a chance to witness the transformative power of media with this film’s ability to double as a clarion call to the authorities and propel a well-worn debate regarding some disturbing trends out of the shadows and firmly embedding it in the national psyche and global consciousness.

Like her memorable little speech that stayed on point, generously sharing the limelight with the featured/unsung heroes of her land — using the momentum to launch a dialogue that is hard-hitting, unapologetic and compelling at the same time is an effective counter against the existing social (dis)order. ‘Saving Face’ is lauded for its potential to change perceptions and with any luck, liberate a substantial section of society held hostage by tradition. But this will not be the first time this filmmaker helped steer the verdict in favour of the oppressed — though it might be the most widely publicized.

As the brainchild behind 16 films — all barring the acclaimed ‘Saving Face’, which was the US filmmaker/co-director Daniel Junge’s idea — Sharmeen has worked in over ten countries including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Philippines (where she did a story about the Catholic Church). Though these films are unabashedly critical of governments, she revealed, to the surprise of many, that the Saudi Ambassador to the United States praised her objective portrayal of his nation’s emergent women’s movement and extended an invitation to return to the Kingdom. At the KLF, she recounted another story of a man her films testimony helped save — a man who threw himself between a suicide bomber and his quarry, got injured and lived in danger of his life after becoming the star witness in the 2005 Shia mosque bombing. Or he did, until the Pakistani government was successfully petitioned to get him out of the country.

There may be no dearth of talent or of stories waiting to be told, but this environment is designed to test a filmmaker’s fortitude. Interestingly enough, sentiments at both Sharmeen Obaid’s screening and the (comedy) session with the cast of “Baigharat Brigade”, Nadeem F. Paracha and Saad Haroon, during the Festival ran on parallel tracks. They were simultaneously lauded for taking a valiant stance and cautioned for living on the edge. It is a valid concern given those cruel statistics where some wonderful voices of reason have been silenced, and the hand that dealt the fatal blow - revered. Raising a voice is risky but as Sharmeen indicated in some post-Oscar interview, the Saraiki belt is a cakewalk compared to playing in the Taliban territory.

Ms. Chinoy, who also shared her filmmaking process at the literary event, admitted to using her level of anger as a barometer to determine her next topic. That anger has taken her to former Taliban strongholds, the oft-derided transgender community, inside an evolving Saudi women’s movement or as in the case of her Oscar-winning collaborative Documentary Short ‘Saving Face’, the victims of acid-related abuse.

Here, a microcosm of society finds itself in the unforgiving glare of her camera. But were the spotlight trained over the entire region, it would illuminate more than the savage streak that runs across the rural areas or the fearsome monsters (who shall not be named) waiting to pounce on over-curious journalists. It would expose the downward drift brought on by a sudden onset of religious righteousness.

And because religious persecution, or persecution based upon distorted versions of religion, at any rate, is a widespread phenomenon, it ends up as centrepiece in many of Sharmeen’s sets. In her representations, those shades of grey that cloud issues using honour as an alibi have no place in what is clearly a black and white palette. In present day Pakistan, loopholes based on that colour variation have been used to vindicate murderers like Qadri, if not in the eyes of the law then in the eyes of the masses, and justify minority persecution by banning consumer products (Shezan) on court premises.

This may be one of the many reasons an image makeover is so hard to sell and harder to accept. A jarring soundtrack often sanctioned by lawmakers or hysterical spiritual guides tends to eclipse the surrounding optimism: the wondrous acts of charity and the tremendous resilience of ordinary men and women quietly battling a perfect storm that threatens to capsize their carefully built illusion of security. Having survived on grants, the Oscar winner bluntly pointed out that the prevalent scene would not have been considered conducive to documentary filmmaking back in the day. Her global debut as a Pakistani filmmaker might spur the state to rectify this oversight.

All her subjects get to see the films that have yet to be aired in Pakistan. Sharmeen’s homecoming may be triumphant but it is also a reality check. A small but vociferous minority more worried about the subject matter that they felt somehow defaced Pakistan is inconsiderately taking up the space reserved for celebration. Cynics in a rabid display of what can be interpreted as blind prejudice have scorned the recognition that, in fact, has raised the stature of a beleaguered society.

For the rest, a moment of clarity permeates the layers of obfuscation. They generously credit her for a win that can help override the failed state mode long enough for Pakistan to cast off labels that gave it that sinister appearance. Can we convince sceptics (of the local variety) busy eyeing everything including a golden statuette with suspicion, to maybe embrace a less cynical outlook?

Also, given the fact that ‘Saving Face’ cannot be screened locally until the subjects have been guaranteed protection, highlights some of the issues these storytellers are up against. That the clips aired may have already revealed their identities might make that objection void. Still, scoring Oscar gold is a victory on several fronts. Its gruesome premise notwithstanding, the emerging face of Pakistan is represented by a compassionate new breed of warriors diligently working to craft a more humane narrative from a relentless pulsating, oozing mass of bigotry pushing against reason.


All Images Copyright of Moi

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