Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy Extends Storytelling Reach With "Ms. Marvel"
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (photo by Bina Khan)
Two-time Oscar-winning documentarian makes first foray into series television 

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a two-time Best Short Subject Documentary Oscar winner, makes her directorial debut in narrative live-action fiction with two episodes of Ms. Marvel, a much anticipated series from Marvel Studios which launched this week on Disney+. 

A journalist, filmmaker and humanitarian, Obaid-Chinoy gained a high profile globally with Saving Face, a documentary short she directed with Daniel Junge and which went on to win an Academy Award in 2012. Saving Face, which gave Pakistan its first Oscar, introduced us to acid attack victims in that country--women whose faces were disfigured by acid thrown at them by men they had spurned or turned down for marriage.

Obaid-Chinoy won her second Oscar in 2016 for directing A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which delved into “honor killings,” a practice that claims the lives on average of 1,000 women annually in Pakistan, according to human rights groups there. Fathers, husbands and brothers kill their daughters, wives or sisters for shaming them. A Girl in the River introduces us to Saba Qaiser who was 19 years old when her father and uncle shot her in the head, stuffed her in a bag and threw her into a river to die. Saba committed the “sin” of choosing the boy she wanted to marry.

Saba survived the attack and is the hero of the film which shows us that such killings and attempted murders are often not prosecuted because Pakistani law allows perpetrators to go unpunished if relatives of the victim forgive the killer.

Both Saving Face and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness also received News & Documentary Emmy Awards.

Obaid-Chinoy’s filmography additionally includes such documentaries as Song of Lahore, A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, and a collaboration with basketball superstar LeBron James on HBO Sports’ Student Athlete to raise awareness about the exploitation of athletes in high-revenue collegiate sports. Obaid-Chinoy also has to her directing credit a series of 3 Bahadur narrative fiction animation films. 

Growing up in Pakistan, Obaid-Chinoy began her career as a journalist in order to initiate conversation around critical issues in the country. At the age of 22, after spending time at a refugee camp in Afghanistan as an investigative journalist, she traveled to the U.S. with a documentary proposal, and after many rejections, she got her big break when that documentary was picked up by the president of The New York Times Television. The film, Terror’s Children, about Afghan refugee children scavenging and begging in Karachi, won an Overseas Press Club award. Obaid-Chinoy has gone on to examine and generate insights into some of the most complex sociopolitical issues around the world, and has earned distinction for spotlighting the untold stories of women. She is also the recipient of a Knight International Journalism Award, the Hilal-e-Imtiaz which is the second highest civilian award of Pakistan, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.  

Now Obaid-Chinoy extends her directorial reach with Ms. Marvel, a show featuring Marvel’s first primarily south Asian cast, including newcomer Iman Vellani in the title role, notably the first lead Muslim character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a Pakistani-Canadian herself, Obaid-Chinoy brings great authenticity to Ms. Marvel which is the story of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who acquires superpowers similar to that of her hero, Captain Marvel. Obaid-Chinoy directed the fourth and fifth episodes of the six-episode first season.

SHOOT has edited Obaid-Chinoy’s remarks for clarity and brevity.

SHOOT: What attracted you to Ms. Marvel as the project for your directorial debut in narrative live-action fiction?

Obaid-Chinoy: I’ve been a champion of telling stories about women around the world for the better part of my career. I had been thinking about narrative filmmaking and Ms. Marvel spoke to me as an extension of my documentary work in so many ways. It was an opportunity to be part of something historic--the first brown Muslim superhero in the Marvel Universe. She was gong to mean so much to so many young people growing up in the world who see a reflection of themselves in her. They too are special. It adds to a greater conversation in Hollywood about different cultures, language, food, traditions. It’s not often that we see that reflected and woven into the discourse of popular culture.

When Marvel put together the team that was going to tell this story, they reached out to authentic storytellers who belong to the region. They put together a team that came from around the world, that brought with them a wealth of experience and knowledge that would help elevate the story. Whether costume designers, directors, set designers, when you walked around the set you knew you were part of something special. Everyone came from somewhere else and brought an authenticity with them.

SHOOT: Reflect a bit on the adjustments you had to make from documentary filmmaking to telling the story of Ms. Marvel.

Obaid-Chinoy: When you make documentary films, you’re always trying to figure out what the story is, how the story is going to end. It’s almost like a mystery in some ways. 

In narrative filmmaking, you’re handed a script. You know how the film ends. I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller. When you’re a storyteller, you bring elements together to tell that story--actors, visual effects, stunts, sets larger than life in the case of Ms. Marvel. Initially I had to do a lot of homework. How do we work with stunts, with visual effects to tell this story that has a large cast of characters? Marvel did a wonderful job of orientation, bringing me in to meet with different teams even before I began filming. I gained an understanding of what technology was being used in visual effects, Marvel being the gold standard of effects; an understanding of working with stunts, how the fights would be choreographed. We did a lot of preproduction, spending time with different teams and when the call to action came, I was ready to go.

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest challenge(s) that Ms. Marvel posed to you as a director?

Obaid-Chinoy: My episodes are rooted in emotion, have a lot of drama in them. We had actors coming from around the world, dealing with COVID, multiple time zones, table readings. We had to find times where actors could spend time with each other and form a chemistry. We filmed mostly during COVID, working with face masks and face shields, There were restrictions when as a director you want to spend as much time as possible with actors. With restrictions and face masks it was harder for us to connect. When you make a film, you go out a lot with the actors, get to do things outside of the set which build chemistry and camaraderie that translate onto set later. We could do none of that.

SHOOT: What’s your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Ms. Marvel?

Obaid-Chinoy: It’s important to rely and lean on people with experience. Explain your vision to them and allow them to use their experience to help you tell that story. 

When I delve back into documentary films, that thing I’ve learned to do [from narrative filmmaking] is how to keep the story at the heart of what you do but then bring with it those big shots that encapsulate a moment.  When telling a documentary film story, you are following a protagonist. You have a verite sequence. Stepping back from it, how do I become an observatory camera just watching everything? How do I take in the entire area? Are there some sweeping shots that augment the beauty of it? I’m not just thinking about the moment where I have the story. How will I make the city come alive? Are there shots that will make the city as much a part of the story as the drama taking place? How do I make this beautiful when I already have the drama?

SHOOT: Has the experience on Ms. Marvel whetted your appetite for more television, more narrative opportunities outside the documentary realm?

Obaid-Chinoy: Yes, I’m looking at several narrative projects now. I remember one day standing on set, looking around and seeing the chaos that ensues when you have multiple teams, looking at having to film with visual effects and stunts, all while having to work with a dramatic scene that involves emotion. I thought to myself this has the same energy that I feel when I’m on a documentary--chasing a character, doing a sequence where a character is on the run from someone. My documentary films are often on the run, talking to people who were in hiding, people who were involved in nefarious activities. The thrill of capturing the story is very much the same.

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