In 2016, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Academy Award for her documentary film A Girl in the River: The Price of Freedom. The film told the story of a woman in Obaid-Chinoy’s home country of Pakistan whose father and uncle attempted to kill her after she married someone she chose instead of having an arranged marriage. This is not uncommon in Pakistan; the Human Rights Commission counted 460 such murders–called “honor killings”–in 2017. What’s uncommon is that this woman survived, and was able to tell her story.
When the film was released, it became headline news in Pakistan, and the prime minister invited Obaid-Chinoy to host a screening at his office, which was live-streamed across the country. On the stage at TED2019 in Vancouver, Obaid-Chinoy told the audience that after the film ended, the prime minister said to her, “There is no honor in honor killing.” He told Obaid-Chinoy that he would work to bring an end to the practice, starting with the fact that a loophole in Pakistani law allowed men who attempted murder to avoid jail if they secured forgiveness from the victims. After the woman featured in A Girl in the River left the hospital and began a court proceeding against her father and uncle, she received mounting pressure to forgive them. In the end, she did. For Obaid-Chinoy, that lent a fresh urgency to the film. “When such a strong woman is silenced, what chance did other women have?” she says.
After A Girl in the River won the Academy Award, the prime minister of Pakistan did close the “forgiveness loophole”: Now, men who kill women in the name of honor receive life imprisonment in Pakistan if convicted.
But the day after the legislation passed, Obaid-Chinoy said, a woman was killed in the name of honor, then another, then another. “We had impacted legislation, but it wasn’t enough,” she told the audience. The film had proved effective politically, but, she wondered, could it change culture and put an end to honor killings before they were carried out?
“We needed to take the film to the heartland, to small towns and villages across the country,” Obaid-Chinoy says. She and her team built a mobile cinema on a truck and began driving it to communities in Pakistan where honor killings were most prevalent, where they would host screenings of the film and discuss the changes in the law and how women can advocate for themselves. Sometimes, they faced opposition. One village shut the screening down “because they didn’t want to women to know their rights,” Obaid-Chinoy says. In another village where some men clamored to have the screening stopped, a plainclothes policeman ordered it back on, saying it was his duty to protect the rights of women to know their rights.
Since Obaid-Chinoy’s mobile cinema began rolling in 2017, it has screened A Girl in the River, but “we also began to open up our scope beyond honor killings,” she says. Her team selected films that tackle income inequality, the environment, ethnic relations, and religious tolerance. Often, they would set up separate showings for women of films that feature women as heroes–heads of state or advocates–and encourage them to step into those roles. For groups of men, they show films that feature men as advocates for women and show punishment for those that disparage or harm women.
Obaid-Chinoy recently heard from organizers in Bangladesh and Syria who want to bring the mobile cinema there, and they’ve begun to plan how best to do that. “For me, cinema can play a very positive role in changing and molding society in a positive direction,” Obaid-Chinoy says.