Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy shares life lessons with the Class of 2018

Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy delivered the following address at NU-Q Graduation on May 7, 2018.

Download a PDF of the speech

Thank you President Shapiro, Dean Dennis, Provost Holloway, Faculty, Parents and today’s stars the Class of 2018…Congratulations!

It is an honor and a privilege to be addressing you. As you file through these gates today the rest of your life is about to begin…Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks. My father told me that everything he ever learned was from this school – the School of Life, so one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself today in this monumental moment is to commit to the journey of life and not the outcome. 

As a filmmaker, I always wanted to tell stories, documenting men, women, and children in the far corners of the world. In telling their stories, in immersing myself in their world, I have learned the simple lessons of life. 

Your life will be defined by the choices you make. Will you follow your passion? Will you choose to be different? Will you in the face of adversity make the right decisions? And will you dare to take chances, dare to be speak out and dare to be heard? 

Today I want to speak to you about these choices and the life lessons I have learnt along the way.

I have always been stubborn about the choices I have made in life because I know the choices we make have a way of defining us. I began writing for newspapers when I was 14 years, but it wasn’t till I was 20 that I began writing investigative pieces. 

It was Eid and I had written the cover story for one of Pakistan’s leading newspaper naming and shaming the teenagers who had access to ammunition and who routinely harassed and terrorized their peers by kidnapping them, shaving their heads, and holding them hostage. 

It was early in the morning when my father went off to say his Eid prayers. Soon afterwards I heard his booming voice echo through the house. My name had been spray painted with unspeakable profanities across many neighborhoods in and around my house to shame my family. The boys I wrote about wanted to teach me a lesson. I was almost convinced that my father, who was a traditional man by most standards, would forbid me from ever shaking the status quo again. But instead he rounded up close friends and family and had the walls white washed. Then he looked at me and said, if you speak the truth I will stand with you and so will the world.

Speaking out and asking difficult questions is never easy. That is the lesson I learnt. Life’s first lesson was: if you speak the truth the world will stand with you.

I was 22 when I graduated from Smith College in the US, determined to become a documentary filmmaker. Armed with an economics and political science degree, I was adamant that film was my life’s calling. So I wrote a proposal and sent it to 80 TV channels and production houses in the US.

Then I waited. I remember when the first rejection letter came through, I felt my heart breaking. I fought back tears. But with each letter, I was more determined that I had to do it. Some responses were of awe, that a 22-year-old with a Pakistani passport and no film background wanted a grant to fund a film in Pakistan. 

One day after most of the responses had come through, I found the email address of the president of New York Times TV on the internet and sent him an unsolicited email. He responded within 15 minutes and invited me to come to New York City to give a presentation.

I bought my first business suit and hopped on a train. Within a few weeks, I had the promise of a small grant to make my first film about the lives of seven Afghan refugee children in Pakistan. 

The film went on to be nominated for several awards including the Overseas Press Club Award where it beat seasoned journalists and won.

Always put in your very best and persist, but know that even then at times you will encounter failure. Many doors will close on you, there will be despondency, and you will feel like giving up. But remember never take no for an answer!

Life’s lesson number two: A door hasn’t opened for you its because you haven’t kicked it hard enough.

I had spent the better part of 2007 convincing CNN to do a story about the plight of women in Afghanistan since the invasion. I traversed the landscape of Afghanistan and found courageous women who spoke about their lives at home, their hopes and dreams, and their struggle for a better life for their daughters.

In Herat I met a young man whose sister Nadia Anjoman, had been murdered by her husband. Nadia was a poet; her writing still haunts me: 

“I was borne for nothingness.
My mouth should be sealed.
Oh my heart, you know it is spring
and time to celebrate.
What should I do with a trapped wing,
which does not let me fly?”

I tracked down Nadia’s husband and conducted his first ever interview in which it became clear that he was guilty. I promised Nadia’s brother his sister would get justice. That once the film would come out his brother in law would get what he deserved: jail time. 

But I failed him. Nadia’s husband walks free till today. For a long time, I tried to forget that promise but guilt has a funny way of creeping up on you.

That year was a difficult year for me as I began to rethink the impact film can have on people and communities. But it was only when Nadia’s brother wrote to me, saying that my efforts had restored his faith in humanity, that I understood this next important lesson. 

Next life lesson: failure should be embraced. 

In 2008, I was filming in Syria and Jordan documenting the plight of the youngest victims of war in Iraq who had sought refuge in neighboring countries. In a dark alley in Damascus, I met a young teenage girl who recounted the horrors of war of losing her entire family in a single bomb blast and of being kidnapped and later being forced into prostitution. She had no hope, the unhcr in Damascus was overwhelmed by applications. We finished filming and left that evening but her face, her voice and what she had experienced haunted our entire crew- as filmmakers we are expected to disengage with the subjects of our films to provide a neutral perspective- in the face of humanity and war that neutral perspective was lost on our group- long after we left the frontlines of war, we began to work on finding the young woman a new home in a new country. A fresh start – countless letters, petitions, behind the scene maneuverings, and many long anxious nights later she was on a plane to Canada.

Life lesson number 4: be relentless and be a pain in the ass- it does work!

In a school in the heart of Nowshera, young women are training to be part of Pakistan’s anti terrorism squad. Every day they dress up in bomb suits and run mock drills, how to disable road side and improvised bombs. A few streets away, in another academy, they run through tough drills. 

Amongst the trainees are three sisters, Pari, Samina and Rukhsana, they come from a small remote hamlet and are the only girls educated in their village. Their father had the courage not only to educate them but also to send them to this police academy. “Everyone shunned us in our village.” they would tell me. “No one wanted to speak to our family. My father was determined that we would serve and that we would lead...” says Rukhsana. I watch them tie a harness around their waist as they propel down a building. Their instructor cheering them on. These are the faces of young women whose families confronted their fears.

The eldest, Pari, tells me life has taught her a simple lesson: When you confront your fears, you find courage in yourself to do what you want to do…They are often the first ones to enter a house when conducting a raid, meeting terrorists head on- Simply because their family dared to confront their fears. Now when the sisters go home in their uniforms, other young girls in the village follow them around, in awe. One day there will be others who will follow in their foot steps. When you drown out the voices of others you confront your fears.

The girls father taught me my life’s next important lesson: always have a thick skin. If you believe in what you do, the voices around you will dim. 

I landed in Timor Leste a new country off the coast of Australia in 2007 to find the island in turmoil. Curfews, violent gangs, and murders – the gangs murdered indiscriminately using machetes and brutally decapitating heads. Our crew filmed in the middle of the night under curfew, going back and forth from one gang to the next.

One particular evening around sunset, the air was thick with tear gas, after a long day of fighting and confrontations the gangs were settling in for the evening. I was in front of the camera reporting about the day as part of the film. Fighting suddenly erupted behind me- I continued to address the camera and suddenly I was pushed and thrown in the air. I landed safely only receiving minor bruises on my arms and legs. Angry, I turned around to see what had happened. A large boulder sat where I had been reporting from. In the midst of fighting a young gang member realized that the boulder was headed for me. He risked his life, crossing the unofficial border into no man’s land and pushed me away so that I wouldn’t be crushed.

Life lesson learnt that day: trust others; the graciousness and compassion of strangers will surprise you. 

The stench on the train that is known as the deportation train is overwhelming. It runs a few times a week from south Africa to Zimbabwe packed to the brim with Zimbabweans - the windows are locked shut for a reason. When the train goes through tunnels, young Zimbabweans desperate to stay in South Africa, wrangle them open and jump out- anything to stop their return journey. In 2006, I was filming for about the rise of xenophobia in South Africa. My story led me to film on the train. 

A few hours into the journey, we settled into our compartment, peeling bananas and eating nuts to fill our stomachs- across the aisle a young man who had attempted to jump out of the train twice already was under surveillance by two officers- we offered our food to the young Zimbabwean and the two officers- over fruits and nuts conversations flowed- the young man described the dire circumstances his family found themselves in under Mugabe’s brutal regime. I could sense the officers were beginning to see the young man as more than a deportee. When the train entered the next tunnel, one of the officers casually opened a window and walked away and the other pretended to look the other way- when the lights came back on the young Zimbabwean had disappeared into the night through the window. 

Life’s next lesson: break bread with strangers. I have learnt that breaking bread with a stranger allows for conversations that change the way you see the world, so stop to do so ever so often. These conversations will open up your eyes to the greater world around you and wilt away prejudices you may hold.

Your journey begins soon. So remember that stubborn dreams are worth pursuing. Remember to stand up for yourself, to be relentless, to fight your fears, to have a thick skin, to embrace failure, to apologize when you make mistakes, and to break bread with strangers.

Congratulations! Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks!