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Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy & Ariel Wengroff: social impact filmmaking & gender equality

In May 2020 Equality Now Board Member, Patricia Amira, sat down(virtually) with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Ariel Wengroff to discuss their film Sitara, social impact filmmaking and gender equality. 

I’m delighted to be able to talk you about Sitara as Equality Now has been campaigning for a long time for laws to end child marriage. Tell me about the film, and specifically, why you chose animation and for it to be a silent movie? 

Sharmeen: I’m a documentary filmmaker and my team and I had been interviewing a number of young girls as part of another project and one thing that really stood out was that all of these girls were talking about the fact that they had to give up their dreams because they were married off young. Some were child brides some were not but the theme always came back to dreams.

So then I began to explore child marriage in greater detail and I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of dreams, of the fact that even today, young girls are robbed of those dreams. So the genesis of Sitara is a young girl who dreams of flying and her wings are cut off and she is forced into child marriage. 

We wanted it to be an animated piece because animation is this beautiful beast that attracts two different audiences, parents and children and this is a discussion that needs to take place in the classroom and at home around the world. Even if young girls are not being married off, they are told every day that something is not possible because they were born a girl. That they need to settle for something less. So this is a story that we wanted to resonate with parents and we wanted to ask them the question: “Why are you not investing in the dreams of your girls?”.

Ariel: It was amazing because I got to work with Sharmeen in 2016 and when she comes to you with a project there is only one answer and it is yes and then you figure out how to make it happen. Sharmeen created this world that allowed us to share the journey of so many young girls’ dreams in a way that it could be accepted in any language, class, or socioeconomic status. And that was really important to us because there are so many people who need to acknowledge the sacrifices that young girls and women are forced to make every day.

Child marriage is a global issue, but the drivers behind the practice vary from place to place, poverty, religion, male guardianship, or shame even. From your own experiences what are the factors you think need to be addressed in Pakistan, Sharmeen and the US Ariel? 

Sharmeen: The first thing is, child marriage is absolutely a global phenomenon. It takes place in the United States and in Pakistan and on the continent of Africa and in Europe. In so many of the conversations we have had, people say, we don’t want to take on the responsibility of a teenage girl, in case something happens to her, we don’t want the shame that could bring to the family.

Also poverty plays a factor in this, war plays a factor in this and in so many countries there is not strong legislation, but instead legislation that says when a girl hits puberty she can bear children then she is old enough to bear children. And it’s a generational mindset.

If you have women who were married young, they will often marry their daughters off young as well because it is a cyclical thing. But child marriage needs to be seen as a crime. It is robbing a young girl of her dreams.

Ariel: I couldn’t agree more. I mean violence against women is inherent when control is over the womb. In the United States, there is no federal age requirement around marriage, it is a state-by-state issue. Most people don’t know this and it is not taught as much as it should be. There is so much legislation happening on a state-by-state basis which Equality Now is involved in, which is the work we need to be doing. But in many international treaties around women’s rights, the United States chooses not to participate and that’s not a narrative that is discussed enough at all.

The United States is responsible for the violence and failings of what happens to our women and girls and it shouldn’t be a state-by-state issue to allow them to be harmed in this way. But it has to be faced head on and in an intergenerational way.

What do you want people to feel and do after watching Sitara?

Sharmeen: I want parents to watch it and know that there is a responsibility on their part to invest in the dreams of their daughters, to enable them to fly. It doesn’t cost a lot to encourage your children to have dreams, it is a mindset. I want a father or a mother watching the film to say “I need to encourage my daughter so she can be the best person she can possibly be.”

And I want young girls watching to know, those that are fortunate, that there are many young girls who are not as fortunate as them around the world. And for those who are not fortunate to know that society can change and that families can change. In the film itself, the credits tell a different story. We did that on purpose because we wanted people who watch the credits to know that once you realize you’ve made a mistake with one of your children, you can rectify that. You can break that cycle. 

Ariel: Of course we want people to leave and feel like they can inspire their children to lead the life they want. But we also hope they have a sense of curiosity around their own upbringing, their own culture, their own family dynamics, and really allow themselves to explore in a way where they didn’t feel put in a box. And I feel like that is so important at all ages because without that ability to feel like you can have the conversation from a place where you’re not being attacked is much more likely to produce an outcome where someone is actually open to seeing the alternative.

Did this experience change your approach to your work or as filmmakers?

Sharmeen: I’m a storyteller so I work in a lot of different mediums. I’ve worked in virtual reality, in animation and I think some stories are better suited to certain forms. There has been a lot said about child marriage and it is an issue people feel very strongly about. And animation is a very nonthreatening medium, it has bright colors, it has characters and since we stripped it of all dialogue and there was just this beautiful score, we didn’t really put any words in the mouths of the characters. We let their eyes tell the story, and we let their gestures tell the story. And that was a very conscious decision because it allowed us to take the film to a lot of different audiences. We could take the film to communities where perhaps they would not have allowed us in because it was a film about child marriage but because it was animation we were allowed in.

Ariel: We did, for one of our episodes for Woman, it was on child marriage in Zambia and it had been outlawed there but one of the most affected tools was the local plays that would rotate village by village because it was a third party facilitation the conversation. I think we find this with any story that is being told that it is really hard to look at someone who looks like you and not want to see the mirror when there is something you have to deal with. And so sometimes, animation can be that tool that cuts through because you don’t actually feel like you are being attacked for practices that you might have actually inherited.

Outside of your own work – which film or documentary do you recommend people to watch?

Ariel: I’ve been really interested in crime lately so outside of the medium of women, I would recommend the podcast Criminal. I would also recommend the pocket change collective book set with storybooks by Kimberley Drew and Adam Eli for teens. 

Sharmeen: I’ve been watching a lot of sports films actually because suddenly I have gravitated from making films about women to making films about sports. I have been watching the Michael Jordan series, The Last Dance, so I would recommend that.

I’ve been reading old authors from Pakistan that wrote in my native language that many of us did not read when we were growing up but now they have all been translated into English. So I am reading a collection by Saadat Hasan Manto that has been translated. I highly recommend his writings.

Since the film aired, what has been the impact?

Sharmeen: We had a very robust outreach program. It would have continued had we not been interrupted by COVID. But we partnered with Gucci’s Chime for Change, Girls Not Brides, and Equality Now. The film was screened in over 250 high schools in the United States and then also in a number of villages in Pakistan where I have a mobile cinema truck that goes from village to village showing the film. It lives on the Netflix platform as well. 

Ariel: Through the partnership with Chime for Change we were able to launch a website called and what’s amazing is that girls who have watched the film or haven’t, can submit their dreams and those live on forever. And that’s a way for any person when they come and see that site to see someone else’s dream and encourage it, support it and share their own.

The film for us is just the beginning and we want to continue to work with our partners to have the most impact as possible.

What are your upcoming or someday projects that you’re most excited about?

Ariel: I have two on the horizon. I am working on a fictional love story, which is sort of a new medium for me. And then I am also working on a documentary about Supreme Court clerks which is a newer project that I am really excited about. A lot of them actually are women and they have huge control in the court but not as much has been told about their stories and the relationship dynamic there. 

Sharmeen: I am excited about a series that my team and I just finished called Fundamental. It travels to 5 countries around the world and it looks at what women on the frontlines as grassroot activists are doing. It features women from Georgia, the United States, Pakistan, Brazil and Kenya and in each episode we are looking at a different issue through the perspective of a grassroots activist.

It is out now on YouTube and Refinery29 and I encourage everyone to watch it because it really shows what women are up against and see it through their eyes.

Has your view of feminism changed as you’ve grown as an artist? 

Ariel: I personally believe that feminism is not black or white which is part of also growing as a filmmaker, the story is always more dynamic and intricate than you anticipate it to be. The most important thing for me to have evolved with is sometimes characters that I thought really sat on one side of the issue on feminism have a much more complicated and intricate relationship to it and figuring out the right way to shine a light on their experience without judgment.

I believe that feminism is ever-present and ever-evolving and it continues to blow my mind that as over 50% percent of the population we still push so hard for everyday struggles that have been ongoing for thousands of years. And I hope there’s light at the end of that tunnel for our children but I guess just open-mindedness helps.

Sharmeen: I grew up in a culture where the word feminism was very loaded, even today you have some very evolved celebrities in my country who say they are not feminists. Even though every single thing they do in their everyday lives has been made possible by other women who have fought for them who are feminists.

So I am what I would consider a “badge wearing feminist”, I like to display it, I want everyone to know it and I want young girls today to know that they are able to do what they do, including going to school, simply because someone else fought for them. And in that, all of us have to be feminists because we have to ensure we get the rights that we deserve. 

Nowhere in the world are women equal to men. Even if you are equal in the eyes of the law the way that it plays out is not equal. There is a long long battle that we all have to fight and everyone has to do it in the manner they are most comfortable with but what I am not okay with is people who say that feminism is too radical.

I just want the same respect. The same rights. Nothing more, nothing less. Give me an equal platform and we’ll see who crosses the line first.

What is your relationship like with Pakistan at the moment?

Sharmeen: Pakistan and I have a wonderful relationship because I have always believed that I am here to be free, not to be loved. When you want space in society, when you are not hesitant to speak your mind when you look into the eyes of people in power and you say what you want to say, of course, there is going to be blow back.

I come from a deeply patriarchal, misogynistic society. Some people actually take offense to the fact that my brain works and I can speak coherently because I am a woman. So my relationship with Pakistan is one in which I believe very strongly that I have to continue to hold up a mirror to society, whether people like it or not.

The government has been supportive of my work, sometimes it just takes somebody to be the right kind of storyteller. Even when they don’t necessarily agree with me, they have worked to push legislation through, they have helped start a conversation.

I am currently working with the government of Pakistan on a number of initiatives. Including an awareness media campaign that is a series of short videos explaining different legal rights and the government of Pakistan has seen that it is very effective and has been supportive.

How do you hope COVID will impact progressive, social change?

Ariel: I believe that COVID is an accelerant of lots of conversations. Because it’s highlighting how essential workers are actually the people that are always on the frontlines for the things we take for granted every day. And hopefully, it will bring more awareness and justice to the work that they do.

And additionally, women and girls are greatly affected during this period of time, so I believe that though we are more isolated in our homes, this time period is putting much more in front of our faces in a way that we are excited and ready to tackle.

Sharmeen: I think that the working world has been constructed by men and COVID has forced us all into our homes and my hope is that when we leave this sort of normal we have found that women will find that they can have more flexibility in work.

Because all of the rules have been made by men but that world needs to be deconstructed and hopefully COVID will do that.