I’m a storyteller, but I’m also a troublemaker.
And I have a habit of asking difficult questions. It started when I was 10 years old, and my mother, who was raising six children, had no time for them. At 14, fed up with my increasingly annoying questions, she recommended that I begin writing for the local English-language newspaper in Pakistan, to put my questions out to the entire country, she said.
At 17, I was an undercover investigative journalist. I don’t even think my editor knew just how young I was when I sent in a story that named and shamed some very powerful people.
The men I’d written about wanted to teach me a lesson. They wanted to shame me and my family. They spray-painted my name and my family’s name with unspeakable profanities across our front gate and around our neighborhood. And they felt that my father, who was a strict man of tradition, would stop me. Instead, my father stood in front of me and said, “If you speak the truth, I will stand with you, and so will the world.” And then he got a group of people together and they whitewashed the walls.
I’ve always wanted my stories to jolt people, to shake them into having difficult conversations. And I felt that I would be more effective if I did something visual. And so at 21, I became a documentary filmmaker, turning my camera onto marginalized communities on the front lines in war zones, eventually returning home to Pakistan, where I wanted to document violence against women.
Pakistan is home to 200 million people. And with its low levels of literacy, film can change the way people perceive issues. An effective storyteller speaks to our emotions, elicits empathy and compassion, and forces us to look at things differently. In my country, film had the potential to go beyond cinema. It could change lives. The issues that I’ve always wanted to raise — I’ve always wanted to hold up a mirror to society — they’ve been driven by my barometer of anger. And my barometer of anger led me, in 2014, to honor killings. Honor killings take place in many parts of the world, where men punish women who transgress rules made by them: women who choose to marry on their own free will; or women who are looking for a divorce; or women who are suspected of having illicit relationships. In the rest of the world, honor killings would be known as murder.
I always wanted to tell that story from the perspective of a survivor. But women do not live to tell their tale and instead end up in unmarked graves. So one morning when I was reading the newspaper, and I read that a young woman had miraculously survived after being shot in the face by her father and her uncle because she chose to marry a man out of her free will, I knew I had found my storyteller.
Saba was determined to send her father and her uncle to jail, but in the days after leaving the hospital, pressure mounted on her to forgive. You see, there was a loophole in the law that allowed for victims to forgive perpetrators, enabling them to avoid jail time. And she was told that she would be ostracized and her family, her in-laws, they would all be shunned from the community, because many felt that her father had been well within his right, given her transgression. She fought on — for months. But on the final day in court, she gave a statement forgiving them.
As filmmakers, we were devastated, because this was not the film that we had set out to make. In hindsight, had she pressed charges, fought the case and won, hers would have been an exception. When such a strong woman is silenced, what chance did other women have? And we began to think about using our film to change the way people perceived honor killings, to impact the loophole in the law.
And then our film was nominated for an Academy Award, and honor killings became headline news, and the prime minister, while sending his congratulations, offered to host the first screening of the film at his office. Of course, we jumped at the chance, because no prime minister in the history of the country had ever done so. And at the screening, which was carried live on national television, he said something that reverberated throughout the country: “There is no honor in honor killings,” he said.
At the Academy Awards in LA, many of the pundits had written us off, but we felt that in order for the legislative push to continue, we needed that win. And then, my name was announced, and I bounded up the steps in flip-flops, because I didn’t expect to be onstage.
And I accepted the statue, telling a billion people watching that the prime minister of Pakistan had pledged to change the law, because, of course, that’s one way of holding the prime minister accountable.
And — Back home, the Oscar win dominated headline news, and more people joined the fray, asking for the loophole in the law to be closed. And then in October 2016, after months of campaigning, the loophole was indeed closed. And now men who kill women in the name of honor receive life imprisonment.
Yet, the very next day, a woman was killed in the name of honor, and then another and another. We had impacted legislation, but that wasn’t enough. We needed to take the film and its message to the heartland, to small towns and villages across the country. You see, for me, cinema can play a very positive role in changing and molding society in a positive direction. But how would we get to these places? How would we get to these small towns and villages?
We built a mobile cinema, a truck that would roll through the length and breadth of the country, that would stop in small towns and villages. We outfitted it with a large screen that would light up the night sky, and we called it “Look But With Love.” It would give the community an opportunity to come together and watch films in the evening.
We knew we could attract men and children in the mobile cinema. They would come out and watch. But what about women? In these small, rural communities that are segregated, how would we get women to come out? We had to work with prevailing cultural norms in order to do so, and so we built a cinema inside the cinema, outfitting it with seats and a screen where women could go inside and watch without fearing or being embarrassed or harassment.
We began to introduce everyone to films that opened up their minds to competing worldviews, encouraging children to build critical thinking so that they could ask questions. And we expanded our scope beyond honor killings, talking about income inequality, the environment, talking about ethnic relations, religious tolerance and compassion. And inside, for women, we showed them films in which they were heroes, not victims, and we told them how they could navigate the court system, the police system, educating them about their rights, telling them where they could seek refuge if they were victims of domestic violence, where they could go and get help.
We were surprised that we were welcomed in so many of the places that we went to. Many of the towns had never seen television or social media, and they were eager for their children to learn. But there was also pushback and blowback with the ideas that we were bringing with us. Two members of our mobile cinema team resigned because of threats from villages. And in one of the villages that we were screening in, they shut it down and said they didn’t want the women to know about their rights. But on the flip side, in another village when a screening was shut down, a plainclothes policeman got up and ordered it back on, and stood by, protecting our team, telling everyone that it was his duty to expose the young minds to an alternative worldview and to this content. He was an ordinary hero. But we’ve come across so many of these heroes on our journey. In another town, where the men said that only they could watch and the women had to stay home, a community elder got up, got a group of people together, had a discussion, and then both men and women sat down to watch together.
We are documenting what we are doing. We talk to people. We adapt. We change the lineup of films. When we show men films that show perpetrators of violence behind bars, we want to hit home the fact that if men are violent, there will be repercussions. But we also show films where men are seen as championing women, because we want to encourage them to take on those roles. For women, when we show them films in which they are heads of state or where they are lawyers and doctors and in leadership positions, we talk to them and encourage them to step into those roles.
We are changing the way people in these villages interact, and we’re taking our learnings into other places. Recently, a group contacted us and wants to take our mobile cinema to Bangladesh and Syria, and we’re sharing our learnings with them. We feel it’s really important to take what we are doing and spread it across the world.
In small towns and villages across Pakistan, men are changing the way they interact with women, children are changing the way they see the world, one village at a time, through cinema.
Documentarian and TED Fellow Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s film A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). She has two TED Talks, “Inside a School for Suicide Bombers” from 2010 and “How Film Transforms the Way we See the World” from 2019. This essay, “How Film Transforms the Way We See the World” by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is taken from the transcripts of this second TED Talk. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License