I am eager to watch #SOC new Oscar-winning documentary on HBO, 7th March is the date. Here is a short overview of the film. Not only because it got Oscar but also because I love and respect the genre of documentary. I have always been inclined towards an educative and aesthetic side of cinema. I had strong opinion about the last one, Saving Face. Initially, the producers had planned only for international or private screenings but it somehow surfaced on YouTube. After watching it, my reservations were not that it highlighted an issue at international level because that’s the role of documentary filmmakers but I found a lack of empathy in storytelling which is a stylistic issue. It is crucial because documentary filmmakers task is to tell the story as honestly and holistically as possible to advocate about the issue. Point of view matters.
You can indulge in investigative journalism and create a hard-hitting documentary, but when you show the subjects, empathy is an important element in the narrative. The film was largely focused on the effort of a non-resident surgeon depicted as a messiah, and a lot of other stakeholders such as Smile Again Foundation who brought the whole issue into the limelight with consideration practical efforts were not in the narrative. Documentaries are as much about the context as they are about the subject.
Many who critiqued the piece ‘after watching it’ and with thorough academic stance, especially by sharing a particular blog post in Express Tribune was quickly blocked from Sharmeen’s Twitter handle by herself or her PR. Blocking is completely okay because it is her space and she has right to manage it. It is important to acknowledge that many viewers had truly felt those gaps, even before coming across that blog so there was no intention to malign but to engage in a dialogue.
Social media has also come a long way after 2012. With the fair share of success, criticism, self-realization that the work should also focus solutions and the acid attack legislation, her work has matured over the years. Ho Yaqeen, Aghaz-e-Safar series and 3 Bahadur animated movie are her creative engagements which hold a good balance of understanding how we can solve our own problems. It also emphasizes that putting all your issues under the carpet does not do any good, trying to salvage the reputation of your country is not patriotism, but putting effort to understand those issues, what are the strengths in the system and society at large that can help us to improve our ill-givings and contributing to the change is.
This time, I am looking forward to how her amazing crew has learned over the years because to be very honest, her international and national facing work has employed a different approach in past and film-making also has a political and commercial dynamics to it, and it is part of the game.
A consequence of the fast-paced interaction on social media is that people start judging too soon, and I have a problem with it. One does not need to take sides to celebrate a winning moment. Watch the documentary, also her other work and then be proud of it or critique it with sound knowledge. Oscar is a proud moment, but it should not stop anyone from indulging in the content. Sharmeen Chinoy herself has mentioned in interviews that Google was her best friend to understand how documentary films are created as she did not have a formal training in the craft; moreover, she also has been blessed with amazing young talent in her crew. So before you make an opinion (of any nature), try to invest time to interpret the content from all the academic sources which technology has made easier for you to access and experts/mentors in the discipline. Journalism and academia should go hand in hand.
With all the buzz in the social media about films portraying a negative image of Pakistan, it will help that we refer people to her other work to witness the many positive outlooks her team has produced. Those one liners on honor, positive change, voice to voiceless are not enough as it creates more polarization.If you are genuinely interested, then go beyond rhetoric and share the work with others, that has the power as conversation starter or changer. Whenever I see the various assumptions by others on her page or elsewhere across social media platforms, in my response I try to specifically mention all the projects that I also listed above, so breadth of work and its nature is also acknowledged.
The issues dealt are pertinent and we should have no shame in accepting them – that is the first step to change. There is no running away from it but yes, you can always have a take on the way an issue is dealt with in a narrative. For creating such an informed stance, you first have to see the actual thing else you are just churning assumptions as opinions. Just as an example, one can have a suggestion that in Saving Face these aspect could have been dealt better: what mechanism established in Pakistan helped the doctor to deal with the patients, or showing the survivor as a resilient force rather than an object of pity. In a response, the team might have answers about how they might have already incorporated these elements.
Are we asking too much from a film-maker? No. Because, if the film has the power to frame mindsets as it is publicly exhibited, more responsibility comes with that power. Similar to how an opinion-piece in a newspaper or an academic research article in a journal can be critiqued. It also provides chances for dialogue and/or rebuttal. Besides, it is important to educate the wider audience that filmmakers may wish to go an extra mile to facilitate change processes such as creating specific programs, creating support systems for marginalized, collecting donations, legislative change etc. but that is not their prime responsibility.
Moreover, documenting the issue is just tip of the iceberg, the next is legislation and eventually, the implementing of legislation to normalize the change. She has done her part, civil society has been championing many issues (including honor killing) for years before Oscars and after the Oscar limelight, it is now government and public which will move the wheel. We can start with small thing such as how to celebrate women achievements, what values do we attach with the concept of honor, what does it mean to be patriotic, what does it mean to be honest or what does it mean to be human, and so on. If we are comfortable in asking constructive questions, the nation is on the right track.
The wonderful quality of the medium of film is that it is multi-layered and multi-faceted so let’s embrace it with all the complexity. Consequently, it is also high time for filmmakers to realize that viewers bring their unique perspective to the film and it is important to be cognizant of it. If it has been made with an intention to help Pakistan, the citizens have a right to share their views as well, else the whole power of the medium becomes counterproductive. All documentaries are work-in-progress, even after the final cut at the edit table. Films have power to initiate the dialogue and that should be respected and not exploited. There is no honor in silence.