Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy discusses the art, and power, of storytelling

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a multi-Academy Award-winning director, journalist, and political activist, and is due to be the first female director of a Star Wars film. At ISE 2024, Obaid-Chinoy presented the opening keynote, "Seeing through the Eyes of Others: Redefining the Art of Storytelling."

Obaid-Chinoy, renowned for her documentary shorts "Saving Face" and "A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness," is the first Pakistani filmmaker to receive an Oscar, and the first female film director to secure two Oscars by the age of 37. During this keynote, she discussed the art, as well as the power, of storytelling, and how she has used storytelling to create real change.

During the keynote, Obaid-Chinoy discussed many aspects of her life. Recounting an instance when she was a child, she discussed the moment she discovered that as a female, she was ‘othered’, but the power she held in being so.

“I was 10 years old, growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, and I was going to school. The car had stopped at a traffic light, and I remember looking out the window and seeing a girl who was my age, except she was barefoot, and her nose was pressed against the car window and her hand was stretched out. I remember thinking to myself, why is it that I'm going to school, and this young girl is on the street begging? I think that was the very first feeling of empathy I felt at that age. And I remember going home, I'm the eldest of six children, five of them girls, and my mother was always answering difficult questions that I was posing to her. And if you're raising six children, you do not have time for your eldest to be asking these kinds of questions. Why is it that I can go to school and this one can't go to school? Why is it that we have to live by these rules because I'm a girl? Why can't I lead the same kind of life that a boy can?

“And that's when I picked up a pen and started writing for the English language newspaper in my home city. So, the very first time my name appeared in print was when I was 14 years old, and by the time I was 17, I was writing investigative articles.

“When I was 17, I went undercover for my very first big scoop. I do not think that the editor knew how old I was to be honest, because he would not be assigning me this story if he had known that. I went undercover to name and shame some very, very powerful people who lived in my city. And I remember the morning the article came out it was the Muslim holiday of Eid, and my father had gone to see his friends. My father who had just left a few minutes ago, came rushing back into the house and his voice was bellowing through the house, and my mother who always gave me this look every time I was in trouble, said to me I don't know what you've done, but you better go sort that. And what had happened was that the men that I had written about wanted to shame me and my family, so they spray painted my name and spray painted my family's name with profanities across our main gate, and around our neighbourhood.

“Shame is such an interesting concept because in many societies, you shame people into silence, and that's what these men were trying to do that morning. They were trying to shame me into silence. My father who was raising five girls could have said that morning, ‘I do not want you to do this. I do not want you to risk our family's life. I do not want you to go out and shake the status quo. I don't want you to go out and ruffle feathers.’ But instead, after he had come down, he said something to me that has always stayed with me. ‘If you speak the truth, I will stand with you and so will the world.’ Imagine being 17 and having your father say that to you in a country where women were having a hard time establishing their voice. That is something that has always stayed with me. And that is something that I have carried with me as I have gone from being a journalist into becoming a filmmaker.”

Obaid-Chinoy’s career is one filled with speaking the truth. She moved into filmmaking by teaching herself how to do so. In the beginning, she wrote a proposal of funding for a documentary that she had begun filming in Pakistan about the number of Afghan refugees that had flooded the streets, and sent it out to “80 organisations.” Obaid-Chinoy commented about the constant rejections from this proposal by saying: “I realised that if a door hasn't opened for you, it's because you haven't kicked it hard enough.”

This led to the filmmaker making her way to the President of The New York Times, and pitching the documentary to him. And that’s how she managed to make her first film.

Speaking the truth is a thread that weaves through Obaid-Chinoy’s work, from her documentary Saving Face, about a woman who had survived an acid attack and the want to seek justice and change in the law about these forms of attacks in Pakistan, to A Girl in the River, about a woman who was the victim of an attempted honour killing because she married a man her family hadn’t approved of, and the judicial system that upheld these forms of murders.

The filmmaker asked herself, “How many films could I create that could change legislation and impact things and galvanise the country into standing up and standing behind women?” And this, she admits, is the driving force in continuing to do what she does.

When A Girl in the River was nominated for an Academy Award, Obaid-Chinoy saw this as the moment to drive legislation change in Pakistan that meant victims would no longer be able to ‘forgive’ family for crime, which would then mean they wouldn’t be able to be criminally charged for crimes. The Prime Minister of the country had already seen the film and there were talks within the Government to change this legislation, but Obaid-Chinoy worried that if the film didn’t win, then legislation wouldn’t go ahead. As she went up to accept her Oscar, she announced that the law had been changed, and sure enough, the law was very quickly changed in Pakistan.

This isn’t the only change that the filmmaker has been instrumental in changing. After LeBron James reached out and asked whether she could help those in college student sports be compensated, she began working on Student Athlete. Along with her co-director, she took the film to Congress and the film played a small role in convincing legislators to think about the fact that young men and women who want billions of dollars for the NCAA should be able to profit off their likeness.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is the perfect example of why the art of storytelling matters, and how powerful a story can truly be.