TORONTO — Earning an Oscar nomination is thrilling for any filmmaker.
But when you’re a documentary filmmaker known for championing human rights, it also becomes a powerful political tool.
Such is the case for Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who competes for her second Oscar on Sunday in the short doc category for “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.”
The film examines the case of an 18-year-old Pakistani girl who survived a brutal attack by her father and uncle bent on an “honour killing.”
Obaid-Chinoy says the Oscar nomination has sparked discussion around religiously motivated murders.
“There’s a national discourse that has started in Pakistan about honour killings and it’s in all the newspapers and everyone’s talking about it,” says Obaid-Chinoy, whose Karachi-based company SOC Film specializes in investigative and socially motivated content.
“I think that that’s a win in itself because it’s such a difficult topic and people shy away from it, normally.”
Obaid-Chinoy, whose accolades include a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, a Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum and a state honour from the Pakistani government, says she’d been wanting to make a film about honour killings “for a long time.”
“But it transpired that almost always the subjects of the film would be killed, so by the time anyone would hear about an honour killing there’d be no one left to tell the story,” she says from Los Angeles.
“One day I was reading the newspaper and I came across these two lines about a young girl who had been shot by her father and her uncle and thrown in a river and she had survived miraculously.”
The first time she met Saba, who was attacked for eloping with a poor boy her uncle disapproved of, Obaid-Chinoy was struck by her fortitude.
“For someone who is not very educated — I mean, she could barely read and write — she had this wisdom about her that was years ahead of her. And she wanted to tell her story. She was eager to tell her story and you know it’s a documentary filmmaker’s dream to have a character that shines on camera and she really does shine on camera.”
After Saba’s attackers were imprisoned, her family and community pressured her to forgive them so the charges could be dropped in accordance with Pakistani law. Obaid-Chinoy says this legal loophole must be closed before real change can happen.
“People actually believe that it is OK to kill a woman in the name of honour. And people routinely get away with it. That mindset was very hard for me to digest,” says Obaid-Chinoy, a dual citizen who lived in Toronto from 2004 to 2015.
“I’m also a product of Pakistan, I was born and raised there, I come from a city and it’s only the luck of the draw that I am who I am. I could be Saba.”
This will be Obaid-Chinoy’s second bid for an Academy Award. Her short doc “Saving Face,” about brutal acid attacks in Pakistan, won in 2012. She is one of only 11 female directors to have won an Oscar.
“You work your whole entire life so you can be at an event like the Oscars and sometimes take a break so you can appreciate the work you have done,” she says.
“I’m a workaholic and I seldom take breaks but I will take a break for Feb. 28 and I will get there and I’m going to walk the red carpet and appreciate the fact that I’m there with some of the best in the world.”
She’s considered to be the first winner from Pakistan, a country where outspoken women have been gunned down for challenging the status quo.
“One has to be determined about what one is doing and I’m very determined about what I am doing,” she says.
“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” will air on HBO Canada on March 7.