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Focus on the Forgotten

Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy frequents the world's trouble spots to give the voiceless a global hearing.

Photo: Ethan Hill

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By Diane Rogers

For anyone who has seen Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's latest documentary, the nightly news may never be the same again. The young filmmaker delves beyond headlines into everyday lives. Iraq: The Lost Generation is her troubling examination of the plight of some of the 4 million refugees who have fled Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Step inside the burn unit of a hospital in Amman, Jordan, and kneel with Obaid-Chinoy at the side of a youngster in a wheelchair. What does Hannan, who already has endured 12 operations, want most? “I wish for more surgeries,” she says, to enable her to walk again.

Or listen to the story of a young boy who was horribly disfigured when “a man exploded himself” on a busy Baghdad street. The boy's mother, father, three sisters and three brothers died in the blast. “I miss all of them,” he says quietly, through a translator. “Especially my mum.”

Obaid-Chinoy, who earned a master's degree in international policy studies from Stanford in 2003 and a second master's in communication the following year, turns 30 in November and has already made 13 documentaries ( aired on PBS, CNN, the Discovery Times Channel, Channel 4 (U.K.), ABC Australia and al-Jazeera International. Her award-winning work has taken her to places ranging from immigrant ghettos in Sweden to dump sites in her native Karachi, Pakistan, where Afghan child refugees forage for survival, to crime-ridden quarters of Johannesburg, where Zimbabwean immigrants have fled from the Robert Mugabe regime. She has documented the emerging women's movement in Saudi Arabia and the resurgence of rebel groups in East Timor.

“My passion is to bring the voices of minorities, women and refugees from one part of the world to another,” she says, over coffee at a San Francisco Starbucks. “My films are all my journeys, traveling through these places, meeting people—that's the basic theme.”

Obaid-Chinoy says her latest film was one of the hardest to make. She spent two months early this year interviewing Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan and found it was “not easy to distance yourself from these people. They are educated people who had good lives in Iraq—they were doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers—and you can imagine yourself in their position asking yourself, 'What would my options be?'”

The options Obaid-Chinoy filmed are heartbreaking. She interviews a 16-year-old girl who was orphaned by the war and then sold to wealthy Arab men in Damascus. The filmmaker follows a 35-year-old Iraqi woman as she works the dark streets of that city—a holder of a business degree who now supports her family by prostitution. Obaid-Chinoy interviews a former contractor for the U.S. Army who fled his homeland when local militia branded him a traitor. “We had jobs in Iraq,” says another woman in the crowded basement of a Christian church in Damascus. “Now we're eating in a soup kitchen.”

In telling the stories of the forgotten and the traumatized, Obaid-Chinoy has a distinct perspective as one of the first Muslim women to work with major Western TV networks. Asked about her 2007 film, Lifting the Veil/Afghanistan Unveiled, she rails against the Taliban-enforced oppression of women. “None of this is allowed in Islam,” Obaid-Chinoy says, with a slow-burning fire. “I get angry a lot, and many times you see that on camera because I know the audience is also feeling angry and is asking, 'Why is this happening?' In many cases, they may think it's happening because it's ordained in my religion. So I really have to educate people by saying, 'Absolutely not. In fact, it's quite the opposite.'”

She doesn't flush the color of the red chunk of topaz she wears around her neck, but Obaid-Chinoy clearly has a viewpoint and a voice. As assistant professor Fred Turner, her adviser in the communication department, puts it, “She's a force of nature.

“She was good at doing school and doing [journalism] on the side, and doing it very aggressively,” he says. “If you had a student who was making films that were airing on the Discovery Channel, and she was taking your 'how to be a reporter' class, I think you'd give her a few days off, too.”

Turner says Obaid-Chinoy came to her studies with a “very clear sense of the kinds of questions and issues she was interested in studying.” She not only knew her way around Pakistani politics, he adds, but also “around the Middle East more broadly.” And she makes no excuses. “She's been a woman working in some very tough environments, and has never once raised that issue,” Turner says. “She thinks of herself as a reporter, and she just gets out there and does it. It's her real hunger and curiosity to understand and make visible the lives of people who are otherwise hard to see.”

This is not the work of a detached storyteller. While filming Highway of Tears (2006), about Aboriginal women going missing in British Columbia, Obaid-Chinoy supported vigils in local neighborhoods. For City of Guilt (2006), she advocated on behalf of women denied contraception in the Philippines.

Raised in an affluent family in Karachi, Obaid-Chinoy was educated in the West, majoring in economics and government at Smith College. “My parents encouraged all of their [five] daughters to get an education,” she says. “All my sisters were educated in the U.S., and they're all working and doing new things, all in some ways breaking boundaries.”

Obaid-Chinoy had written for a Karachi newspaper as a teenager and freelanced articles about Pakistani politics in her undergraduate years. By the time she enrolled at Stanford, she was working for the now-defunct television production division of the New York Times as a reporter and producer. “I'd been a print journalist for a while, and I felt that to make people understand what was happening in the Muslim world, you really had to make it visual. You can pick up a newspaper and read an article, and to some extent you can imagine the place and the suffering. But when you hear it firsthand, I think it leaves a different kind of mark.”

Communication professor Ted Glasser notes that Obaid-Chinoy's earliest documentaries demonstrate that “she's focused, she's energetic and she's talented—an unbeatable combination.” His former student, he adds, “is a very good storyteller, and is very assertive when it comes to getting at what she wants to get at. By that, I mean she goes after facts, wherever they take her.”

Obaid-Chinoy, in turn, says she got a “fantastic” education in Turner's courses on media and new technology. “When I was at Stanford, in 2003 and '04, people were just starting to think that print journalism and newspapers might become something of the past,” she recalls. “So we were really ahead of the curve, and I learned a lot of theory and a lot about technology.”

Her first fieldwork, to film Terror's Children, also had afforded a lesson. The New York Times television division had given Obaid-Chinoy a two-week crash course in “how to direct, what to do with a camera, how to work sound” and sent her off to Karachi in the summer of 2002. Three weeks into filming, she shipped her first batch of tapes back to New York. “And I got a frantic call from them, saying, 'There's no audio.' So we had to go back and re-film.” Obaid-Chinoy spent 10 weeks following eight children forced out of their homes in war-torn Afghanistan as they resurfaced in Karachi refugee camps, religious schools and scavenger enclaves near garbage dumps.

She made two award-winning films while at Stanford, traveling and editing during spring and summer breaks. Reinventing the Taliban? (2003) looks at the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan; Obaid-Chinoy ventured into the movement's stronghold in the country's northwest to interview its leaders, as well as ordinary citizens who support the creation of a society modeled on the Taliban's oppression of women, limited civil liberties and anti-American policies. The film won her the 2004 Livingston Award for journalists under 35; she was the first non-American to be chosen.

On a Razor's Edge (2004) continued Obaid-Chinoy's portrayal of Pakistan, this time weighing the prospects for peace with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir, predominantly Muslim. The filmmaker conducts prickly interviews with Pakistan's former army chief of staff and the country's former intelligence chief, and she secures a clandestine, candlelit meeting with outlawed Kashmiri jihadis. The film was part of PBS's Frontline series “Stories from a Small Planet,” which won an Overseas Press Club award in 2004.

Obaid-Chinoy's work also has been recognized by American Women in Radio and Television and by the South Asian Journalist Association. In 2007, she became the youngest recipient of the One World Media Award for broadcast journalist of the year in the United Kingdom. At the Livingston awards ceremony in New York in 2005, Obaid-Chinoy met award juror and CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, a previous recipient, whose reports on the first Gulf War she had followed closely.

“She was always my model, growing up,” Obaid-Chinoy recalls. “I watched her on television when I was 11, and I said, 'I want to do what she does.' She, in some ways, is a minority, too, having come from an Iranian background. And knowing the kinds of barriers she'd been able to break— that was a trajectory I was interested in following.”

On a recent trip to Kabul, to shoot Lifting the Veil/Afghanistan Unveiled, Obaid-Chinoy slipped into a burka to “walk in the shoes” of a 40-year-old Afghan widow who was supporting her children by begging on the street. As young boys mocked her and as older men shouted abuse, she felt the humiliation the older woman endured every day. “I never put [the burka] on unless it's absolutely necessary,” Obaid-Chinoy says. “It's a garment that restricts mobility, and, quite frankly, God made women in a certain way, and that's the beauty of a woman—to be who she is.”

In reports from the field, Obaid-Chinoy dresses casually, often in jeans. Hand-held cameras follow her down busy Damascus sidewalks, and she will turn from a conversation on a corner to look directly into the lens and relay what she's just learned. She has no objections to wearing a head-scarf, “because that's according to my religion,” but she may choose a defiant color. “Red really does stand out,” she says. Sly smile.

Although Obaid-Chinoy lived for some years in Toronto with her businessman husband, Fahd Chinoy, they moved back to Pakistan this year and she travels on a Pakistani passport. As a result, she often gets what she calls “interesting” questions from customs officials. “When you have a passport with stamps from Iraq, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, you get a lot of, 'Really, are you a journalist?' Because how many women do you come across from my part of the world who do what I do?” Obaid-Chinoy's not-so-standard response? “I say, 'Just Google my name.'”

The search-engine results only stand to increase with her growing portfolio. Obaid-Chinoy is completing a book about the political history of her native Pakistan, told through the experience of two generations of Pakistani women. Also in the works: a film on Mugabe, and another about Israel and Palestine.

DIANE ROGERS, MLA '99, is clinical affairs writer at the School of Medicine and Stanford Hospital & Clinics.

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