A look at Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary about an honour killing in Pakistan A Girl in the River, and the controversy that surrounds it.
A beautiful moment captured on celluloid shows moonlight glistening over a large water body. The shot is at once engaging, mysterious and poetic – a perfect cinematic rendering of a screenplay by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The scene is part of Jago Hua Savera (Day Shall Dawn), Pakistan’s official entry to the 32nd Academy Awards. The feature film failed to make it to the final list of Oscar nominations back in 1960. Over half a century later, another Pakistani film’s title appears on a high contrast shot of moonlight bouncing off dark waters. This is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s A Girl in the River that won the golden statue this year in the documentary short category.
Punjab’s lush green landscape, skilfully captured by cinematographer Asad Faroqui, belies the ugly practice the documentary shines a light on: killing in the name of honour. It follows the story of Saba Qaiser, a 19-year-old woman from Khayali village just outside Gujranwala city, after she survived an attempt on her life made by her father and uncle.
“I will not forgive them no matter what,” she declares at the start of the film from her hospital bed in Hafizabad, about 60 kilometres to the west of Gujranwala. The crew of SOC (Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy) Films reached that town within days after Saba was shot and thrown into a canal there.
“The very first time I met Saba, I was struck by how passionate she was… she wanted to shake things, she wanted to register the case, she wanted to fight,” Obaid-Chinoy recalls.
Saba’s courage is what made her important for Obaid-Chinoy, says Nadir Siddiqui, who did the sound mixing for the film. “Sharmeen loves heroes. She is very invested and interested in people trying to change the Pakistani society.”
Another hero in the film is Ali Akbar, in charge of Hafizabad’s Saddar Police Station. He is shown in the documentary insisting that Saba’s attackers must be tried and given exemplary punishment.
By the time the film crew arrived in Hafizabad, his team had already arrested Saba’s father, Maqsood Ahmed, and uncle, Ashfaq Ali. “We went [to the police station] assuming that we will run into some trouble there,” says Haya Fatima Iqbal, the film’s co-producer, in a phone interview with the Herald. But the police officials were more than happy to help them. “They had nothing to hide.”
The first half of the documentary makes it look like the assailants are all set to stand trial. But, as the subtitle, The Price of Forgiveness, suggests, that does not happen and Saba forgives her father and uncle – at least legally speaking.
The SOC Films team could not anticipate that. “What are we going to do? She is going to forgive him and he is going to walk free. Why is she doing this?” is what Obaid-Chinoy remembers discussing with her crew. “But as film-makers we cannot intervene.”
Forgiveness is made even more disconcerting for the viewers by the complete lack of remorse Ahmed and Ali show in their interviews in the documentary. Speaking from behind the bars, the former is visibly proud of his act. “For respect and honour, I am ready to go to prison for all my life,” he says. He also boasts that – given what happened to Saba – no woman from his family will ever dare follow in her footsteps.
At a surface level, A Girl in the River has all the ingredients of a fiction film: forbidden love and a union against all odds. And yet its contents are very real with real implications for its characters. That is why, as Siddiqui puts it, documentary films are “theatre of real life.”
The way the 40-minute-long documentary explores human relationships also makes it truly a cinematic experience. The film-makers have sensitively captured some intimate moments between Saba and her husband, Qaiser.
Filming nuanced emotion is always difficult and in the case of A Girl in the River it was made more so by the opposition from Saba’s family to appear in the documentary. “Saba’s mother and sister were not particularly forthcoming initially,” Obaid-Chinoy says. Only after she and co-producer Iqbal built a rapport with the mother did she agree to tell her side of the story. “She wanted everyone to know that she had no part in her daughter’s attempted murder.”
The story behind the Oscar
In the days following the Oscar win for A Girl in the River, media vans clogged the narrow dirt path leading to a single bedroom house in Khayali as journalists pestered Saba’s parents living there for comments. As the reluctant face of honour killing in Pakistan, her plight has attracted attention from all over the world. Locally, the contrast between the glamour of the academy awards and the squalor of her life is generating a lot of debate.
And amid all this furor, Saba has paled into the backdrop. There has been no happily ever after for her. The gash on her face, a remnant of the botched murder attempt, remains an unseemly blemish hidden behind the anger and frustration with which she narrates her ordeal.
About two years ago, Saba was almost invisible, with no identity documents to prove even her existence. Having studied up to the sixth class, she received more education than most in her family. The parents of a boy, Qaiser, living in the same area where she was growing up, asked for her hand in marriage with him. Qaiser is almost illiterate and works as a labourer, making three hundred rupees a day. He is the sort of person who likes to observe — if a match is going on, he will like to watch silently from a distance. He also looks scared.
“After my family accepted their request, I began to speak with Qaiser on the phone regularly. Our love grew,” Saba says. Then one day her father and uncle told her that she could not be married to Qaiser. “They first said they liked him and then they started saying that he was poor and did not have a good job. I told them that I only wanted to marry him,” she says in an interview with the Herald in Khayali. “My mother also agreed with me.”
On June 3, 2014, Saba disappeared from her home and married Qaiser in a secret ceremony. Her mother, Maqsooda, was furious. By marrying Qaiser, Saba hurt her sister Aqsa’s chance to have a respectable married life for herself within our own biradri, says Maqsooda.
Late the next day, Saba found herself sitting in a van along with her father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, two friends of her uncle and their wives. According to a First Information Report (FIR) registered on June 5, 2014, she was told that they were going to Sargodha, about 170 kilometres to the southwest of Khayali, “to buy wheat.”
Before the van reached Hafizabad, it suddenly took a turn to the left on a road leading to the village of Kassoki. A kilometre or so later, it took another turn and started moving along a large canal. It was then that the men in the car held Saba by the arm and threw her out of the van. Her uncle and his friends got down and started punching and kicking her.
In the dark of the night, her father took aim at her heart and pressed the trigger of a pistol he was holding. Saba took the bullet on her hand. The next bullet was aimed at her head but went through her left cheek. She fell unconscious with blood splashed all over her body. The men stuffed her into a gunny bag and threw her into the canal. “Saba made a grave mistake. And she paid for it. We are even,” is how her mother would later comment on the incident.
The water that hit against Saba’s unconscious body woke her up and she wiggled herself out of the bag. She walked about two kilometres to reach a petrol station. By the time she reached there, her bare feet were bleeding. A young man spotted her and called the police.
Saba was conscious and not in depression when she reached the hospital, recalls Dr. Atif, the surgeon on duty that day at Hafizabad’s district headquarters hospital. “She had a fracture on her right hand and her left cheek was open like a book. I thought about postponing the surgery till the morning because it was already midnight and there was no one to anaesthetise her but then I realised I could manage with local anesthesia,” he says.
A day later, Obaid-Chinoy met Saba briefly at the hospital. The same day Saba’s father and uncle and his friends – Muhammad Tanvir and Muhammad Imran – were arrested for her attempted murder.
“During the first hearing of her case in Hafizabad, Saba did not agree to a compromise,” says Waqas Sageer, a Hafizabad-based lawyer. “When she came to see me [after the first hearing], she had already agreed that forgiveness was the best way forward but she was still reluctant to forgive her uncle’s friends,” Sageer tells the Herald.
A panchayat was then held with the two sides in attendance at the residence of Sanaullah Gujjar, an influential resident of Khayali. He is also Ahmed’s neighbour. The panchayat convinced Saba that she could not be selective in exonerating her attackers. She agreed.
In a statement recorded before Civil Judge Tariq Bashir during the next hearing of her case, she stated: “I filed a complaint with the police because of a misunderstanding. I forgive them for the sake of Allah’s mercy. I would have no issues if the court releases the suspects.”
Saba’s face hardens as her mother waxes lyrical about how the family came together again as a result of her forgiveness. “The reconciliation happened under duress,” she says out of her mother’s earshot. Her paternal family had threatened to kill Qaiser and herself if Ahmed and Ali were to get sentenced. There was no other way but to reconcile, she says.
As the memories of the fateful summer of 2014 started to fade, Saba became a regular visitor at her parents’ house — unknown to her uncle and grandfather. The women of the family accepted her back into their fold.
Then Obaid-Chinoy won the Oscar and, Saba says, she found herself facing the river of fear again.
River of fear
Maqsooda was about to go to bed on March 21, 2016 when she heard a loud knock on the door. Startled, she opened the door and found Ali standing outside. “Where is Saba?” he shouted. “She has ruined our family’s honour… the story of her treachery is all over the internet.”
Saba was at her in-laws’ house that night. Ali went there at around 11:00 pm and knocked at the door. “I knew at once who it was,” Saba says.
Ali stood outside the door, swearing at her and threatening to kill her. “You are all over the internet, you filthy creature,” he said before leaving.
Saba packed her bags the next morning and left Khayali with her husband and son to live somewhere else. She also informed the police in Gujranwala about the threats to her life. “I told you I wasn’t safe,” she tells the Herald over the phone, sobbing.
Towards the end of the last month, Gujranwala’s Regional Police Officer Muhammad Tahir received a letter from Obaid-Chinoy, seeking action against Saba’s tormentors. The letter travelled down the police bureaucracy and on March 27 reached the head of Gujranwala’s Saddar Police Station who ordered the arrest of both Ali and Ahmed.
They were taken into preventive custody the next day. “Her uncle was very agitated and angry about the film and her father said the film had reopened their wounds and humiliated them all over the world,” says Inspector Muhammed Sarwar who picked up the two men and presented them before a magistrate.
Saba’s mother is in a state of shock. “We will never have the money to get them released on bail. None of us, not even Saba, wanted them in prison.”
Deals and demands
SOC Films shot Saba’s story in more than a year. A filming spell that long requires a high level of trust between the film-makers and the characters; otherwise the latter may walk away, deeming the filming process too lengthy and too intrusive. And then there is another risk: prolonged proximity with film-makers may lead characters to develop financial expectations as compensation for their time and stories.
This has indeed already happened with an earlier SOC Films project. Rukhsana Perveen, a character in the company’s 2012 Oscar-winning film Saving Face, unsuccessfully sued Obaid-Chinoy for not fulfilling promises of financial support.
Rukhsana lives in the sleepy town of Bait Meer Hazar in Jatoi tehsil of Muzaffargarh district along with her husband and four children in a small two-room house. She claims Obaid-Chinoy, the producer of Saving Face, had promised to arrange for her a five-marla house in Multan city as well as three million rupees and plastic surgery of her burnt face.
Rukhsana’s face and upper body were burnt badly on March 5, 2009. Her father, Mukhtiar Ahmed, lodged an FIR on June 14, 2009, alleging that her sister-in-law had sprinkled kerosene or petrol on her, her mother-in-law had held her by the legs and her husband, Yasir Iqbal, had lit the match to set her ablaze. “Then they put a quilt on her,” the FIR reads. By the time Rukhsana reached a hospital, 28% of her body, including her face, was disfigured.
The day the FIR was registered, a local landowner, Sardar Liaqat Khan Leghari, and Rukhsana’s brother-in-law, Mehboob Ahmed, asked one Mureed Abbas to help her get treatment through the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) for which he was working as a field officer. Abbas took her to Islamabad, along with Mehboob Ahmed. There she met Obaid-Chinoy who “promised her treatment and medical support.” This is what Abbas told police in Bait Meer Hazar back in 2012.
In Rukhsana’s version of the events, Abbas and Obaid-Chinoy “connived” to make her father lodge the FIR. Married to Yasir Iqbal since 2007, she does not want to discuss whether or not she was burnt by her in-laws. But she accuses Obaid-Chinoy of leaving her “in the lurch after earning name and fame by showing my story to the world.”
Rukhsana has been levelling these allegations since the release of Saving Face. She addressed a press conference in 2012, alleging that Obaid-Chinoy was collecting donations on her behalf. In June 2013, she moved a local court in Bait Meer Hazar for the registration of criminal cases against Obaid-Chinoy, Abbas and Muhammad Khan Yousufzai, executive director of the ASF. Additional sessions judge Jatoi ordered an inquiry on her application on August 2, 2013 but later dismissed her request. He advised her to file a civil suit for damages, which she did but it was also dismissed by the Lahore High Court’s Multan Bench in 2013.
Mehboob Ahmad, who owns and runs a gas cylinder shop in Bait Meer Hazar, is bitter about what, according to him, befell his family with the release of Saving Face. “My brother [Rukhsana’s husband Yasir Iqbal] was implicated in false cases and was sent to jail. We had to sell five acres of ancestral land to defend ourselves in courts,” he tells the Herald.
After the documentary won the Oscar, he says, a local religious personality, Abdul Khaliq Laskani, made a speech and said that “my family had brought bad name to Muslims.” Mehboob Ahmad says he had “to apologise to Laskani and beg for his mercy in order to protect my family from the public wrath.”
Ahmad Shah, a local influential in Bait Meer Hazar, seconds Mehboob Ahmad’s claims. “Obaid-Chinoy may have earned a lot of fame but she never came back here to have a look at Rukhsana’s plight.”
Abbas is reported to have countered these claims already. In a response to the inquiry ordered by the additional sessions judge, he told the police: “After receiving the Oscar award, Obaid-Chinoy … provided [Rukhsana] all kinds of financial support … A house was also purchased for Rukhsana so that she could get a roof over her head.”
Obaid-Chinoy endorses this statement. She tells the Herald that Rukhsana and Zakia, the two characters in Saving Face, were both offered – by the donors that SOC Films had put in touch with them – a house each. While Zakia, the primary subject of the film, opted to get cash in lieu of the house, Rukhsana opted for the house initially, “but then she started blackmailing for the cash as well.”
Rukhsana says she never got anything from Obaid-Chinoy. “A philanthropist, Khalilur Rehman, provided me with a two-room mud house in Qasim Bela locality of Multan with help from an Indonesian donor. The house did not even have electricity,” she says.
She also accuses Obaid-Chinoy of breaching another promise — to not show the documentary in Pakistan. Obaid-Chinoy and her Saving Face co-director Daniel Junge had denied this allegation in a May 2012 media report, “All subjects were informed of our intention to release the film globally, including Pakistan.” In any case, the film-makers stopped showing it locally after a few screenings when the ASF moved a court in Islamabad in 2012, seeking injunctions against its screening.
Like any documentary maker, Obaid-Chinoy says she makes the characters in her films sign what in the industry jargon is called a “release form”; it clearly states they will not get any compensation. “We have very categorically told the people profiled in our work from day one that ‘look, we cannot help you but perhaps when your story goes out, people will be moved to help you,’” she explains. “We are facilitators.”
Saba has already been facilitated to get a five-marla residential plot in Khayali, reportedly worth 700,000 rupees. “Since the film came out, money has been collected to buy [Saba] a piece of land,” confirms Obaid-Chinoy. “We are in the process of setting up an educational fund for her son with a local school,” she tells the Herald.
Obaid-Chinoy may soon find herself dealing with more demands. Saba is in her first trimester, broke and in hiding. She says she is desperate to get out of Pakistan. “If I leave, the stain on my family’s honour will leave with me. The biradri will accept my family and I will be rid of them.”
Her method of choice to do so is to seek asylum in Canada and she believes the publicity her case has received will help her cause.
Catalysts for change
Standing in a prison cell, a middle-aged man speaks to a camera crew about his daughter: “We gave her birth. We would have married her to somebody but she ran off by herself.” The 15-year-old girl’s brother, who had fired the shot that killed her, says he is both proud and ashamed of what happened: “I’m proud that I killed her but ashamed that she was my sister.”
This is a scene from a BBC film, Murder in Purdah, aired in 1999. It highlighted the issue of honour killing in Pakistan like never before. It was followed soon by another BBC documentary on the subject, License to Kill, that looked at an incident in Lahore.
Anna Suvorova, a Russian art critic, recently explained why the two documentaries generated a lot of debate on honour killing, especially in the West. “Human rights activists and the public at large began to take an interest in honour killings in the 1990s, when these crimes began to occur in Asian immigrant communities in Europe and North America,” she wrote in her 2015 book Benazir Bhutto: A Multidimensional Portrait.
Murder in Purdah, indeed, irked many in Pakistan and within South Asian immigrants in the United Kingdom with its bold portrayal of the problem. The Islamic Human Rights Commission, a research and advocacy organisation based in London, issued a statement in January 1999, demanding that the BBC broadcast an “apology for the blatant misrepresentation of Islamic beliefs and the views of practicing Muslims” in the documentary.
Murder in Purdah also received critical acclaim and awards. The film’s reporter, Olenka Frenkiel, stated while accepting the Peabody Award: “General [Pervez] Musharraf… has promised that he is going to make honour killing illegal.”
Not much seems to have changed 16 years later. Even though Musharraf introduced a law in 2004 specifically on honour killing, the perpetrators continue to go scot free.
Obaid-Chinoy’s film has similarly caught the attention of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The film-maker says her real victory will be the passage of a law that Sharif promised during a special screening of the documentary at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad on February 22, 2016 — a week before it won the Oscar.
To Obaid-Chinoy, films like hers seek to be catalysts for change — nothing more, nothing less: “Our job is to instigate conversations. It is to get people to think about issues.”
Hina Jilani, a Lahore-based lawyer who is also an outspoken advocate for the rights of women, says the conversation that A Girl in the River has instigated is around its content rather than its form. “At least I haven’t heard anyone say that it displays extraordinary film-making,” she tells the Herald.
Jilani then observes that the ground for A Girl in the River has been prepared over a very long time. There are several hundred documentaries on the issue of honour killing, she says. “I have seen the works of a lot of Turkish film-makers who have highlighted this issue. I have also seen some really good films on the subject at the annual human rights film festival in Geneva.”
Jilani recounts how a previous documentary on honour killing helped the issue get to the Senate. It was about Samia Sarwar, a young woman killed inside Jilani’s office.
“It is not that it was the first incident of honour killing but it was an incident that took place in a lawyer’s office and there were third party witnesses,” says Jilani.
Samia Sarwar was stuck in an abusive marriage with her cousin and had two children with him. Her father, Ghulam Sarwar Khan Mohmand, an affluent Peshawar-based businessman, allowed her to move back to her parent’s home on the condition that she would not remarry. But she fell in love with an army captain, Nadir Mirza, and proceeded to file for divorce.
She came to Lahore, enlisting legal help from Jilani. The lawyer advised her not to go back to her parents and reject any attempts by them for reconciliation. Then one day her mother, a gynaecologist, contacted Jilani. She promised to let Samia Sarwar get a divorce. A meeting between the mother and the daughter was scheduled at Jilani’s office — AGHS Legal Aid Cell near Liberty Market.
On April 6, 1999, Samia Sarwar’s mother arrived at the office with an unknown man. When the daughter rose from her seat to greet the mother, the man pulled out a pistol and fired, killing Samia Sarwar instantly. The gunman would be immediately shot down by the AGHS guards. No one from Samia Sarwar’s family was tried for masterminding and facilitating her murder. Instead, an FIR was registered against Jilani and her sister, Asma Jahangir, for allegedly abducting Samia Sarwar. There were also attempts to blame them for the murder.
Advocacy groups and human rights activists instantly rallied behind the case. The late Iqbal Haider submitted a resolution in the Senate against it on August 2, 1999 and demanded the government ensure the arrest of all those involved in the murder and punish them. It was rejected as “the governing party members belonging to the conservative tribal region of the North-West Frontier Province put up a forceful opposition,” reported BBC. “Much to the surprise of many, they were fully backed by a left-wing opposition group, Awami National Party, whose members also come from the same province.”
Even outside the Senate, the environment was unfavourable. “Everyone from the judges to the politicians said it was their girl who they had murdered. You should just leave them alone,” reminisces Jilani. That seems to be no longer the case. “Times have changed … Now no one stands up and says that honour killing is justified,” she says.
Jilani, however, warns against being over-optimistic. “The main issue that remains to be addressed is connected to Qisas and Diyat laws.” These Islamic provisions allow parties to criminal cases to arrive at a compromise in lieu of monetary and/or other considerations. “Are you expecting a government which is struggling to defend the Protection of Women Against Violence Act 2016 to touch those Islamic laws?” she asks.
Ashtar Ausaf Ali, the Attorney General of Pakistan, sees the glass half full. In March last year, the Senate passed the Anti-Honour Killing Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2014 and Anti-Rape Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2014 which will now be pushed through the National Assembly during a joint sitting of parliament scheduled for April 11, Ali says. The proposed laws will empower a court, rather than a victim’s family, to decide for or against forgiveness. The same change is being proposed in some other laws so that the opposition to it is not focussed on honour killing alone, he adds.
A Western conspiracy?
A major criticism against A Girl in the River is that it is made with a foreign audience in mind. Obaid-Chinoy does not agree. “All our films are made exactly the same way… whether they are for a domestic audience or for a foreign audience.”
Her co-producer, Iqbal, has a slightly different view. To her, the execution of projects made for a foreign audience may differ from the execution of those made for a local audience. A Girl in the River, for instance, makes a conscious effort that its audience does not see honour killing as a religious practice. In Pakistan, on the other hand, “…even a child would know that honour killings have nothing to do with Islam.”
She finds it funny that the SOC Films projects made for local audiences do not get as much traction as an Oscar win does. “[Aghaz-e-Safar aired on Aaj Television] was just so much hard work to put together. When it went on air… a lot of people may not even have known about it.”
Iqbal – who now works as a freelance film-maker – believes that some of the criticism that Obaid-Chinoy is facing could be because of her gender. “People have a problem with Malala… with Asma Jahangir, with Sharmeen. These are all courageous women who speak their mind and people often do not like a woman with a voice.”
Posters of the SOC Films projects greet visitors along the stair case at the production house’s Karachi office. One of them shows 3 Bahadur, a feature-length animated feature; another pertains to a 2015 documentary, Song of Lahore, that tells the story of classical music; then there is one about a 2009 documentary, Pakistan’s Taliban Generation.
“There is no ‘western conspiracy’ going on here,” says Obaid-Chinoy. “I loved what Louis CK said when he gave me the award,” she says, referring to the American comic’s joke about how one cannot earn a dime on a documentary short. “These people will never be as rich as long as they live,” he said before opening the envelope to reveal A Girl in the River as an Oscar winner. “We are not going to be multimillionaires winning these awards or making these documentary films,” she says.
Her company has started screening A Girl in the River at educational institutions in Pakistan; it has also received requests for screenings at factories. Going the “non-traditional route” to attract a large audience, Obaid-Chinoy expects Saba’s story to facilitate a discourse on honour killing. “We are not simply in the business of making films. We are in the business of making films that inspire people to take action.”
A director’s response
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy responded to the published story in a letter to the editor, in which she states:
“The magazine has misstated that the mother of the subject (Saba) of A Girl in the River was in a state of shock over the arrest of Ali and Ahmed (uncle and father of Saba respectively). Saba’s mother had actually called me and members of my crew to connect them with the police force.
Saba has already received land valued at rupees one million, along with a second donor building a house on said land for her; and a third donor bestowed her and her mother with monies of Rs 500,000. Therefore the implications of Saba being penniless and in trouble are incorrect.
It is further stated that Rukhsana (the subject of Saving Face) allegedly met me in Islamabad on June 14. This is a fabrication; I was not even in Pakistan during this time period.
Rukhsana was connected to donors through SOC Films and we were continually in contact with her regarding donors, until greed got the better of her and she stared blackmailing us. It must also be known that I have never collected any donations on her behalf, and that documentary film-makers are expected to follow the same protocol as journalists and hence we do not pay and/or get involved directly with monies and the documentary subject.”
*Note: In the article’s print version, it was misstated that Rukhsana had opted to get cash in lieu of the house. She chose to take the house initially, and according to Obaid-Chinoy, Rukhsana blackmailed the film-maker for cash as well.
This article was originally published in Herald, Pakistan.