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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

A Girl in the River: Oscar-Winning Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy Shines a Light on Honor Killings [Exclusive] 

A Girl in the River: Oscar-Winning Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy Shines a Light on Honor Killings [Exclusive]
Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

In Pakistan, more than 1,000 women perceived as having compromised the “honor” of their families are reported to be killed each year. Families are often pressured to forgive and absolve the aggressors, which allows them to return to the community. In A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy explores the complex forces faced by women in Pakistan today. The clashing interpretations of women’s rights and family honor are examined as we explore the dramatic journey of Saba — a courageous young woman who survived an honor killing — as she fights for her life, her dignity and for justice.

I had the chance to talk to two-time Oscar-winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy last week. We discussed why she wanted to make this film, how she discovered Saba, how prevalent honor crimes are around the world and what Pakistan is doing to protect these young women.

TV GOODNESS: First of all, congratulations on your second Oscar win. I really loved your speech and I want to come back to that. But let’s start at the beginning. How long have you been wanting to tell this story and how did you find Saba?

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: “Starting in 2013, I wanted to begin working on a film about honor killings. We tried to find a few cases. We even began to work on a few characters, but in honor killings almost always the victim perishes, so I was looking for a survivor of honor killings. I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of a survivor.

One day I was reading in the newspaper that this young woman had been shot and thrown in the river in a gunny bag in what appeared to be an attempted honor killing. We jumped at the chance to find the young woman. We called up the hospital, the team arrived over there and we began filming almost immediately.”

TV GOODNESS: How did you decide you wanted to frame this story and was it easy or difficult to get Saba’s family to talk to you?

Sharmeen: “The film framed itself. We wanted to tell her story. We were convinced she was going to fight the court case and it was gonna be a very different story than what it turned out to be. We began filming. We started pursuing the case. Her family, her in-laws were very supportive and gave us access. Eventually after we spoke to her father and the uncle, the mother and sister also started giving us access. So, it worked out. Each one wanted to tell their side of the story.

As a documentary filmmaker, the best films are made when you are surprised. I was surprised. I didn’t even know she could forgive. That just came in the mix when she started going to court and we heard people talking about forgiveness. Then we started researching about forgiveness. Can she and what are the parameters of it? And the story just started taking shape that way.”

TV GOODNESS: I love that you end the story with Saba having so much hope for the future and that she has a daughter. She’s wishing all these great things for her, but I was still sad that Saba couldn’t see justice for herself. Was it important for you to end the film on a hopeful note?

Sharmeen: “I wanted the film to end on a hopeful note because I wanted the audience to realize that having gone through what she has gone through, Saba wanted a different life for her daughter, that she was aware of what the potential and possibilities were. She knew she couldn’t get them, but she wanted her daughter to get them.

Now this is exactly the same case between me and Saba. Saba used to look at me when I used to come and film with her. She used to look at Haya [Fatima Iqbal], my co-producer, and she used to say, ‘How do the two of you have so many freedoms?’ She would often ask us questions and in asking us questions, she would be better informed about what the potential of being a woman in Pakistan could be.”

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about Saba a little more. I think you did such a great job of giving us a full picture of who she is. You show the side that wants to be a dutiful daughter, but has been wronged. You show her with her husband and they’re great together. When you were talking to Saba how did you decide what you wanted to put in the film for people to see?

Sharmeen: “I wanted people to see Saba as this fierce warrior, a woman who wanted her life to be an example. It changed from her being that fierce warrior to being a woman that has been forced by society and had to come under pressure. I wanted people to experience that transformation as she was experiencing it.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s go back to your Oscar speech. You said some great things and talked about the men who champion women. What difficulties did you face in making this film and how important was it that your male allies had your back?

Sharmeen: “The thing about the men championing women is that almost too often it’s easy to demonize all men. I want people to realize there are good men and the good men do champion women.

For example, with Saba’s case you saw the doctor at the hospital. [He] was horrified when she had been brought in in this condition. He was to save her life. The first lawyer, Asad [Jamal], really fought for Saba’s rights. The police officer, [Ali Akbar], believed very strongly that this has nothing to do with religion and investigated the case and brought the father and the uncle to jail.”

TV GOODNESS: You also mentioned that the Pakistani Prime Minister has seen the film and has pledged to change the law. How’s that coming along?

Sharmeen: “Last week the Prime Minister’s office — with members of the Parliament, the cabinet, the press — watched the film. Legislation is being drafted right now on honor killings and it is going to go to Parliament very soon. We believe that in a matter of weeks this legislation is going to be brought to the Parliament. I think it’s very important to have strong legislation and the Prime Minister has taken the lead on it.”

TV GOODNESS: After people watch your film, is there a way to help? What would you recommend they do to make sure this doesn’t happen to other young women?

Sharmeen: “One of the things about honor killings is that they affect many communities around the world. If you’re talking about an American audience, if you’re talking about a Canadian audience, if we’re talking about a Western audience, in immigrant communities honor killing crimes are very prevalent because the parents, especially the fathers, want to hold onto their daughters and don’t want them to assimilate into the society that they have moved into.

There have been some high-profile cases in the U.S. There was a case of an Iraqi family where the father killed his daughter. There was another of a Hindu father killing his daughter. In Canada there was were daughters in an Afghan family that were killed. So, this is prevalent. In the UK, the BBC did a report that in the last 5 years 11,000 honor crimes— not killings, but crimes related to honor — happened in the UK. That’s an astounding number.

The only thing that one can do is talk about this issue and educate yourself about it. There are non-profits that work especially with immigrant communities. Those are non-profits that should be strengthened and empowered. Resources are located there.”

Edited for space and content.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness premieres Monday, March 7th at 9/8c HBO.

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