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We need to change the conversation about Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. Here's how.

The concept that a 'positive image' of Pakistan can and should exist is flawed. So is a whole lot more.
Updated Mar 02, 2016 05:45pm

Amid celebrations of Sharmeen Obaid's landmark win at the 88th Academy Awards a significant number of opposing voices emerged to trot out an opinion we've long had to endure: that Sharmeen and her filmmaking are doing damage to Pakistan.

These are not fringe voices, which is why it's important to address them. Prominent politicians, commentators and artists have offered up critiques on Sharmeen's work.

This backlash against Sharmeen may appear uniform but it's not. Two very different critiques emerge.

The first claims Sharmeen's films only highlight Pakistan's failings and don't do enough to promote positive developments at home. Implicit in this is that these films shame us and sully Pakistan's good name. Case in point, Shireen Mazari's tweet that a 'positive reflection of Pakistan' should also feature in a documentary. A comment on this very website also exemplifies this point of view: "All documentaries she [Sharmeen] makes highlight the negative facets of Pakistan... Bad people and bad traditions are prevalent everywhere in the world. She isn't making any difference except portraying a poor image of Pakistan."

The second critique, while it may appear to be directed towards Sharmeen, is in truth more about the nature of foreign media's interest in Pakistan. By way of an example, we can look at Shah Sharahbeel's comment that we'll forever be waiting for a day when we "see such awards given to movies made on the victims of drone attacks." Here's another comment on this website: "The west will never give her an Oscar if she works on a positive image of Pakistan."

I'm sick of all this Sharmeen bashing. But we can only change the conversation about Sharmeen and her films when we understand where all the vitriol comes from and separate what is truly spurious from what might be valid criticism.

Why the current narrative is all wrong

To begin, let's look at criticism offered up by the first camp — people who say making documentaries about practices like acid-burning and honour killing does damage to Pakistan's 'positive image' abroad.

This argument is outdated and frankly, just plain irrelevant. Here's why.

These critiques just don't stand anymore.
These critiques just don't stand anymore.

First off, the concept that a wholly 'positive' image or narrative of Pakistan can and should exist is flawed.

It reflects only our limited capacity to imagine a world that exists beyond neat binaries, beyond distinct divisions between good and bad, piety and faithlessness, patriotism and open sedition. It is borne of a gross failure of imagination, which leads to us being unable to digest the idea that creative endeavour — any compelling story, really — is the product of both light and dark, struggle and perseverance.


The concept that a wholly 'positive' image or narrative of Pakistan can and should exist is flawed. It is borne of our limited capacity to imagine a world that exists beyond neat binaries, beyond distinct divisions between good and bad, piety and faithlessness, patriotism and open sedition.


To people who can't see A Girl in the River as anything except a negative portrayal of Pakistan, I'd say: alter your perspective. It's not just an exposé of our very-real penchant for honour-killing women — it's also a compelling story of survival. And in that, right there — that's your positive representation of Pakistan, personified in a shalwar kameez-clad girl of 18 who refused to die quietly in a river.

Second, it is not a documentary filmmaker's primary function to represent his or her country in the best light possible. That's what the foreign office is for, or the tourism department, or, dare I say it — the cricket team. A documentary filmmaker's job, at its most basic level, is to represent and explore an issue of his or her choosing truthfully and accurately.


Newsflash: we're all on the same side! The government just disavowed honour killing! Arguments that make divisions or differentiate between Sharmeen's filmmaking and our own efforts to stamp out practices like honour-killing are basically moot.


Even so, I'm willing to concede that a filmmaker of Sharmeen's stature is somewhat of an ambassador of Pakistan, and so doesn't have the luxury of remaining indifferent to our expectations to promote feel-good stories from Pakistan.

But even by that standard, you can argue Sharmeen and her team have done their part. Remember Songs of Lahore, a film Sharmeen directed about a group of Pakistani musicians travelling the world to celebrate classical music? Or 3 Bahadur, an animated film aimed at a young audience? Clearly, some effort is being made to address a broad range of issues concerning Pakistan. That these documentaries are not of great interest to either ourselves or a western audience indicates a systemic problem, which, by its very nature, can't be righted by a sole individual or a one-off documentary. More on this later.

Third, I'd argue that a filmmaker can't be accused of portraying their country negatively (ie. actively working against the public interest) once the state has given that filmmaker sanction and support.

Can we really say Sharmeen's pushing a 'negative agenda'... when the government now supports her?
Can we really say Sharmeen's pushing a 'negative agenda'... when the government now supports her?

And this is exactly what's happened with Sharmeen's A Girl in the River. Just a week ago Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif invited Sharmeen to the PM House to screen the documentary, after which he said honour killing is reprehensible and that Chinoy's “insights” could prove helpful.

Call it savvy PR by the government, call it connections — but the fact is, in issuing this statement the government has made itself accountable to the people. We are now free to ask the state how much progress it's made in drafting legislation that ends honour killing. This documentary has made tangible gains in advocacy and benefited all of us.

So, in case you missed it, newsflash: we're all on the same side! The government just disavowed honour killing! Arguments that make divisions or differentiate between Sharmeen's filmmaking and our own efforts to stamp out practices like honour-killing are basically moot. Move on.

Fourth, saying that Sharmeen shouldn't broadcast problems like honour killing to a western audience and should instead work locally to fix/shed light on issues reveals to us only our own hypocrisy and childish yearning for approval from a white audience.


Let's just admit it: we have a twisted relationship with western media houses. We hate them for stereotyping us yet we don't consider our achievements valid unless they're covered by CNN or BBC or The New York Times. Why should Sharmeen raise issues locally if local coverage won't lead to real change?


How does it do this? Well, it's the nature of the Pakistani public and its government to not take issues seriously — rape, racketeering, children getting shot by the Taliban — until a western media house or government takes notice of it first. When in the past have we come out to support an issue until it took off in international media?

Let's just admit it: we have a twisted relationship with western media houses. We hate them for stereotyping us yet we don't consider our achievements — or problems — valid unless they're covered by CNN or BBC or The New York Times. You know this is mostly true. Would Axact have been raided if it weren't for that story in The New York Times? Would the Prime Minister have issued a statement on honour killing if Sharmeen hadn't made it to the Oscars? We want our activists to resolve problems locally, in only the local media, but we refuse to take notice on issues highlighted in that very local media. Why should Sharmeen raise issues locally if local coverage won't lead to real change?

If we really want Sharmeen to stop talking about uncomfortable truths abroad we have to a) get rid of our predilection to only take news seriously if it receives sanction and approval 'from abroad' b) start taking action on stories highlighted by local media.

From the all of the above, I think its safe to say all talk of Pakistan's 'positive image' and Sharmeen's role in dismantling it needs a major overhaul.

So what should our new conversation about Sharmeen look like?

Let's revisit the second critique levelled against Sharmeen — that her documentaries only get attention because they highlight 'negative' aspects of Pakistani culture. When people say this, I think what they really intend to criticise is not Sharmeen, but western media houses and arts organizations that very selectively extend their patronage to non-mainstream voices.

These critiques are more about institutional bias in western media houses
These critiques are more about institutional bias in western media houses

Recast, this criticism is valid. What with all the talk — and evidence — that the Oscars are not the most transparent or equitable of awards I think it would be obvious that even the most well-known western media-arts complexes are fraught with prejudice. Case in point: Sharmeen's documentary Songs of Lahore showed abroad, including a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it didn't generate any Oscar-worthy buzz. Case in point: actors of colour were grossly underrepresented at the Oscars this year. Case in point: a lack of gender and racial diversity in upper management in media house and boardrooms the world over.

In this context, is it impossible to imagine that a western audience finds a story about honour killing more interesting than one on Karachi's new mall? No.

Foreign media abroad is invested in certain narratives about Pakistan, and those narrative do not necessarily represent us in all our complexity.

Seen against this backdrop, if Sharmeen is guilty of anything it's of being astute enough to recognize that she can't win every battle in the west — she can only win some. She has adroitly worked the system (which in itself is a huge achievement) to expose whatever truths she can and has done good in the process.


Foreign media is invested in certain narratives about Pakistan, and those narrative do not necessarily represent us in all our complexity. Seen against this backdrop, if Sharmeen is guilty of anything it's of being astute enough to recognize that she can't win every battle in the west — she can only win some.


Can she help change the global conversation about Pakistan and move western media towards treating our stories with greater empathy and nuance? Probably, yes. But she won't be able to do it alone. We need to do our part, and that includes strengthening local media, giving local productions, screenings and awards more credit, and generally being less touchy about the fact that western media houses operate keeping only their own audience in mind, not ours.

What I mean is, our conversation needs to focus on how to dismantle institutional bias in the western media. Bashing Sharmeen is not an effective route to counter this bias.

If we really want to offer Sharmeen and her team constructive criticism now, post second Oscar-win — we need to raise the caliber and alter the context of our arguments.

Here are my suggestions: how about we critique her work's artistic merit or factual accuracy? Or the fact that her documentaries are not widely screened in Pakistan?


So what should we talk about if we want to offer Sharmeen constructive criticism? Ideas: let's discuss the ethics of documentary film-making, or the question of access and privilege.


Valid also are debates on the ethics of documentary film-making, about how the powerless and the powerful interact in these arenas and who benefits, and how much.

Plausible also is that we might recast discussions about Sharmeen to feature talk of economic and social privilege. By this I mean it's not off the mark to wonder why Sharmeen's documentary on honour killing made it to the Oscars while other locally-made documentaries did not. If we're lucky, when we talk about how Sharmeen is privileged in certain ways that other filmmakers may not be, we'll understand how class divides and a subsequent lack of opportunity might be holding talented people back.

In this way, if you disagree with Sharmeen's work you'll at least have some weight behind your argument.


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