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Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on 'A Girl in the River' and Honor Killings in Pakistan

By Tom White

Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination in the documentary category. You can see A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness on Saturday, February 27 at 11 a.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater as part of DocuDay LA.

When Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was nominated for the Academy Award in 2012 for her documentary short Saving Face (Daniel Junge also directed), the film made an immediate impact in getting her fellow Pakistanis to engage in serious discourse about the rash of acid attacks on women in rural communities. "Before the Academy Award nomination," she recalls, "if there had been an acid attack in Pakistan, you would be hard pressed to find it reported in the newspaper, let alone on the news channels. But with the Academy Award nomination, whenever an acid attack was reported, it made it to the front pages." While she was making the film, a law was passed that made acid attacks a crime punishable by life imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. And in concert with her eventual Oscar win for the film, that law was not only implemented in regions across the nation, but acid attack crimes were moved in some regions to the more efficient anti-terrorism courts.

Four years later, Obaid-Chinoy is back with A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which follows the plight of Saba, a victim of an attempted honor killing at the hands of her father and uncle, for having defied their wishes and eloped with her husband. I say "attempted" here because despite being shot in the head, stuffed in a sack and tossed in the river, Saba survived, and made her way to the hospital. The film tells the story of her fight for justice in a tradition-bound, patriarchal society.

We spoke with Obaid-Chinoy via Skype in her home in Pakistan.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


How did you find your protagonist in your film?

I wanted to do a film about honor killings for about six months leading up to when we found Saba. But it turned out that every time we looked for a case to profile, the girls had been killed. So there was very little to go on after that because cases were seldom filed and investigations seldom happened.

So we chanced upon this: One morning, I was reading the newspaper and there were about two or three lines about a girl who had been shot and left in a river and had been rescued and was in a hospital in a small town recovering. So, my team and I started investigating. We called all the local hospitals and we figured out where she was.

We spoke to the man who was in charge of the hospital—this incredible doctor, who invited us to come. And he said, "You should contact the young woman because she's very brave and extraordinary, and her story would be one to tell." So, we packed up our bags and arrived the next day in this small town. And that's how we began filming her.


I was under the assumption that, given how miraculous it was for a girl to survive having been shot in the head and thrown in the river to drown, the media had descended on this story right away. Were you and your crew among the first filmmakers on the story?

No. There was some local media on the story in Pakistan. Pakistan has a lot of news channels—about 40, to be exact. But our news is very centered around being in the moment, so people will descend. They'll film something and then they'll never go back. So, there were a lot of news channels that had descended upon the hospital in the 24 hours while we were trying to get there, and the story ran on specials and on bulletins.

But then after that, nobody did follow up. While we were there, nobody was there.

From Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's 'A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness'

A key to good documentary is ensuring the trust of those you're spending a lot time with. How did you present your project to Saba, to enable her to trust you and your vision for the film?

It's very important to have the whole family agree to be filmed. It's a decision that's taken by the family. So, we had to spend a fair amount of time with her brother in law, her husband and her mother in law to gain their trust.

Saba was very eager to tell her story, but those around her wanted more assurances and wanted to know what the film was going to be about. In the first two months of filming, they were very determined to fight the case. And they felt that if they had a film, a story being told, it would be easier for them to fight this case because they would have some sort of protection because these cameras would be following them around.

But then as the case started changing and Saba was beginning to forgive her father, we found that she still wanted to tell her story, but she didn't have that kind of zest in her that she did when we initially started filming. By then we had gained the trust of the whole family, but she was also pregnant towards the end of the film, so she was quite tired all the time. It fell right into place because if we had to film her any longer, it would have been much harder because she was pregnant and she just had given up a little bit.


This is a community that is not exactly progressive with respect to women's rights, but you managed to secure the key males in this film—the father, the uncle and the male elders. How did you present your project to them to get them to agree to appear on camera?

With the father and the uncle it was slightly easier because they were so determined to tell their side of the story—they felt that they had done no wrong. For the two of them, it was a simple black-and-white issue of honor: when a girl dishonors the family, she gets what she deserves. So they were not hesitant at all to talk to me.

But the community elders did not want to be on camera. They didn't want to show that they were applying any pressure. My co producer spent a lot of time with the community elders, talking to them and slowly easing them in before they would allow us to film.


Toward the end of the film, you interview the father again after he's been acquitted, and he seems even more defiant, unrepentant and resolute than he did when he was in jail. After the trial, was it difficult to get the father on camera again?

Well, after he got released, he went away for a few weeks. The business that he used to do was selling cloth in remote areas. So he left immediately after he got released from prison because the family desperately needed money. Upon his return, we contacted him and asked him if we could speak to him.

And that was just around the time when his other daughters were getting a lot of interest from other families, and he had this swagger about him. And he agreed readily. He was very, very resolute in that interview. You see his facial expression and the way he makes that point that what he did was so right; now he's almost a hero in the community.

To me that moment is why we made this film because people don't think about honor killings as a crime in Pakistan. And the reason that they don't think of it as a crime in this country is because nobody ever goes to jail for it. And that moment crystallized that. He is a hero and any other man in that community who has seen this [scene] will think that this is the right thing to do and will do this if he's given the opportunity because he knows how easy it is for people to walk.

From Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's 'A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness'

You're very well known as a filmmaker/journalist in Pakistan. Has your renown, particularly as a women making films about women's issues and reform, posed a danger to yourself and your crew and your family? Have you had to take certain precautions?

You know, the thing about living and working in a country like Pakistan is that there are certain dangers that come with that. There are lots of filmmakers who go into a country, film and then leave because obviously they're not from there. And I've done that in many countries that I've filmed in.

But because this is my home, there are certain kind of precautions one does have to take. I don't jeopardize anyone in my team and equally so because we are often working on two or three projects and all of them are sensitive in some way or the other. But sometimes things are very good in this country, but it only takes a second.

If you'd asked me this question a few years ago, I would say, I'm a woman. So, I have a certain degree of kind of protection simply by virtue of being a woman. In the last few years, especially in the city that I live in, a number of very high-profile activists have been killed, and they've been shot at point blank. Last year, I lost a very good friend of mine who was an activist and who I worked with on a number of initiatives. And then the year before that, two women I admired greatly who were activists of an older generation were also killed.

So, it is difficult to work in this environment, but I think that because I live here and I call it home, that's something that I don't like to think about.


I want to circle back to A Girl in the River. What is Saba doing now?

Saba has a son; she gave birth a few months ago. And she is doing well. She's living with her husband. She is desperate to find a way to get her son an education. And we are working now to secure a fund in which her son will get to go to school for life. We're also working to raise funds so that Saba has property in her own name.

Saba didn't have any documentation—no birth certificate, no kind of any identification, really. No one has ever gone out and done that. And so, my team found and spoke to people in the local government, who are now getting her proper identification.

And then the prime minister recently made a statement in Pakistan that he wants to eradicate and work to end honor killings. When I told Saba about that she said that if that happens she will go to the prime minister's house and thank him in person.


What are your plans do you have to get this film to the right people—to instigate the kind of change that Saving Face had helped instigate?

Well, the prime minister made a very bold statement because there are people within his own party and there are a lot of elements in Pakistan that wouldn't want the laws changed. And I hope to hold him to his statement because there is a bill in Parliament that takes away the right of forgiveness and that bill should be passed. And we are going to put as much pressure as we possibly can to ensure that that happens.

He has invited us to screen the film for the very first time in the [his] house. Hopefully we will have the screening sometime this month. And then we'll use this film as an education tool, so that people can see what happens in an honor killing and step back and see that this is something that should be treated as a crime.


Finally, about the form of the film itself, this is a short as opposed to a feature, and you've made both. What made you determine that A Girl in the River would work better as a short than as a feature?

When I was making the film, I wasn't thinking, Is this going be a short or is this going be a feature? I was making the film initially thinking that she was going to fight the case. But as the film developed, I realized that the thing about Saba was that you had to show her change in the film.

You had to show kind of how she became from the very powerful empowered woman in the weeks after she was shot to someone who's resigned to the system and pressure and how she coped with the pressures that came along with being part of the system. And I think that that kind of change lends itself to this short format. And it's a very effective format because you can take this short film and you can play this in schools and colleges.

It's something that can be seen as an advocacy. And now with the shorts films they are taking and playing and seeing it in theaters as part of SHORTSHD. So, I think it gets the proper exposure that one is looking for with a subject like this. The short form is also a very effective way of telling international stories because it's subtitled. It's in a different language. You hold the audience for that amount of time and get that message and that issue out there.

Tom White is editor of Documentary and content editor of