Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy brought the country its first Academy Award in 2012 with Saving Face, documentary on acid attacks on women in Pakistan, that she co-directed along with American filmmaker Daniel Junge. The same year, she figured in Time ‘s list of 100 most influential people of the year. Whether it be her Emmy award-winning television series Children of the Taliban (2009) on Pakistani teenagers who got drafted into the Taliban, or Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret (2011) about the transgender community in Pakistan, or her latest, 3 Bahadur, a story of three child superheroes, Chinoy has always strived to bring stories about “real heroes” on screen. Ahead of the release of 3 Bahadur, the 35-year-old Karachi-based filmmaker speaks on working with animation for the first time and on the film industry in Pakistan. Excerpts from an email interview:
1. What motivated you to make an animation movie for children?
I had wanted to do something for children for a long time. Pakistan has a very young population and a booming media industry, but we have stopped producing quality content for children. All of our content is imported, from animation to variety shows, and thus our youth grows up with mentors and heroes that are far removed from what they see around them in real life. I felt that it was about time we produced light-hearted, quality content for children locally so that our children can finally see characters who look and speak like them on the big screen.
2. The story seems like a fantasy tale about three child heroes. Why not base the story on something real?
3 Bahadur is first and foremost an animated film that must be enjoyed. The great thing about animation is that on the surface your story may be about princesses and mystical creatures but there is always room for subtle messages and themes to run in parallel. 3 Bahadur seeks to do just that; on the surface, the show is about three young superheroes, a menacing villain and his gang of fumbling thugs and a slew of hilarious and action packed moments. There are definitely some ideas that we have woven into the narrative, but they are never overbearing or overtly evident.
3. Is this an animation story from Pakistan about Pakistan or a universal children’s story?
3 Bahadur is a quintessentially Pakistani story – replete with unlikely heroes, menacing villains, fumbling thugs, dark horses, moments of triumph and bouts of despair. Based in a fictional town in Pakistan, three children Amna, Saadi and Kamil, set out to save their community from the many evils that plague it. Audiences will see streets and characters who look like them – from the familiar calligraphy that is painted all over the streets, to the criss crossing wires that we have gotten accustomed to seeing around local neighbourhoods. I want Pakistani children from every nook and cranny to see 3 Bahadur and be entertained and inspired. I want them to finally be able to see their reflection in movies, with superheroes that look and speak like them.
4. In Pakistan you were criticised for pandering to the west with your award-winning documentary Saving Face. Did you treat 3 Bahadur any differently keeping that in mind?
From its character to the team behind it, 3 Bahadur is a purely Pakistani production and is made in Urdu. We have taken special care to ensure that the story remains very local; from the way we have designed our characters, to our dialogues and our script. We want to prove that Pakistan can pull off such content, and we hope that the release of the film proves that there is indeed demand for such content as well.
5. How challenging was it for you as a documentary filmmaker to experiment with animation?
I was nervous because I had never worked in animation before, and documentary films are very different in terms of content and style. When we started working on 3 Bahadur back in summer of 2012, it was an uphill climb – putting together a team, learning how animation works from the initial sketch to the final shot, and diving into a medium that is both expensive and time consuming. What surprised me was the ease with which we found exceptional illustrators, writers, animators and visual effect artists and, with their help, we found our pace a few months into the project. Animation is a beautiful medium for fiction storytelling because it offers a lot of scope for creativity and imagination. On the other hand, documentary films find their strength in a honest and realistic depictions of the world.
6. Your films have always looked at the harsh realities facing the world. Is this film a deviation from that image or another medium to spread that message?
During the shooting of many of my documentaries, there were times when I felt overwhelmed and disheartened by the atrocities around us but I found hope in my subjects. I was inspired by the stories of survivors and it instilled me with a sense of purpose. This is why it was very important for me to make a film like 3 Bahadur for Pakistani children. On the surface 3 Bahadur might appear to be about superheroes and mystical creatures, but underneath that commercial cartoon value is a force that seeks to engage, empower and motivate today’s youth. The film is a journey of fighting back, taking charge, and finding support and love in the most improbable of places.
7. What took so long for a country to make an animation film?
Making an animated film is costly wherever you are – the nature of the medium is inherently costly and incredibly time consuming. Unfortunately, unlike films, the amount you spend is directly related to the quality that you can achieve. Pakistani animators are skilled enough to produce content that mirrors Pixar in terms of quality, but you need the budgets that support such work. We haven’t done our animators justice in this country, and have not given them the space and resources required to show off just how talented they are. We have all the ingredients to one day be a nation that produces multiple animated films every year, and I am certain that 3 Bahadur will play its own small role in expanding the industry and getting more people interested in what animation has to offer.
8. How do you see yourself as a filmmaker in coming years? Making animation and documentaries both? Do they have different purposes?
Documentary films are fluid in nature because the filmmaker is dependent on reality – the story develops organically and we capture it through the experiences and testimonies of our characters. With animation, you work in phases, from the original concept to the storyboard and then eventually the final material. At the end of the day, I want to tell stories that matter and finding the right platform to tell a story is part of the process.
9. There is a lot of talk about new-wave cinema and crossover cinema in India at the moment. Do you yourself working on crossover film projects? And what kind of cinema movement is Pakistan seeing today?
Definitely. If the right project comes along, I would love to do a collaborative film with Indian talent. Unlike Indian cinema which has solidified its place in the global arena, Pakistan is now witnessing the rebirth of its film industry. I have no doubt that this new wave of bold and socially conscious cinema will carve out a unique place for itself in the international sphere.