Marvel Studios is no longer a stranger to telling stories with multiple protagonists. The studio has made an effort to represent cultures from around the world, with films like “Black Panther,” “Shang-Chi and The Legends of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals.”
Disney+ just released “Ms. Marvel,” the six-part limited series that tells the story of a 16-year-old Pakistani-American high school student from New Jersey named Kamala Khan. Played by Iman Vellani, Khan is an Avengers fangirl who struggles to fit in until she discovers she has super powers of her own.
“EM. Marvel” takes a grounded look at the family dynamics of South Asian culture in America, marking a new level in Marvel’s list of inclusive stories.
And, as a balanced mix of teen drama and superhero story, “Ms. Marvel” may not have sounded like a project director that Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy would take on. That’s because the Pakistani-Canadian journalist and activist has honed her filmmaking skills in graphic documentaries that depict the injustices of women in her native Pakistan. Over the years, however, she has fallen in love with storytelling for a younger audience.
“I wanted to tell stories that resonate deeply with young people, that have strong messages,” says Obaid-Chinoy. “And I wanted to find a way, a means to do that.
She directed two of the six-part series, and the long-time documentarian shows a sense of pride and enthusiasm for the series.
“It’s a dream to have validation that your music, your culture, your food, your fabrics, the vibe of your culture is being celebrated,” she comments. Since its debut, the series has received the highest score for a Marvel production on Rotten Tomatoes.
“EM. Marvel” is Obaid-Chinoy’s first live-action narrative fiction. Before taking on the series, she finished a computer-animated short film for Netflix called Sitara: Let Girls Dream. Ready for another project, her CAA agents warned her that Marvel Studios was looking for directors for “Ms. Marvel.”
“So I threw my hat in the ring,” she recalls, and she met the show’s executive producers Bisha K. Ali and Kevin Fiege, as well as Victoria Tracconi, marketing and advertising manager. She cast her vision for the main character Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, what she would look like, how her powers would unfold, her family dynamics, and even the show’s music.
“For the first time, I felt this was the right project for me to move from one medium to another,” she says of the shift from making documentaries to a narrative fiction format.
Obaid-Chinoy was hired and says, “before I knew it, I was calling to action,” in a collaborative effort with Edil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah and Meera Menon, the other three directors doing four episodes. “[I just looked] in the vision that they had, and how they wanted to tell the story, and sort of [took] in all his suggestions, even prospecting for locations”, he adds. The series was filmed in Thailand, Atlanta and New Jersey.
“Animation was a natural step forward.”
Before taking on the Marvel series, Obaid-Chinoy’s first brush with non-fiction came in 2015, when she made the action-animated film “3 Bahadur”, or “Tree Brave”. It tells the story of three children with super powers who save their city from an evil force. Pakistani box office success helped her land the gig to direct “Ms. Wonderful.”
“The ‘Ms. The Marvel connection is, for me, very strong because I think I’ve always told stories about ordinary people who have extraordinary abilities. [‘3 Bahadur’] are superheroes in their own communities. They just don’t wear capes,” she says. “And Kamala Khan/Mrs. Marvel, what it represents, is very much in line with the other characters that I’ve been filming throughout my career, which is showing the world that you can be a superhero, no matter who you are or where you come from.”
Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani to make a computer-animated feature film. She wanted to tell stories to young people while maintaining strong messages, and found animation to be a perfect medium to achieve this after years of documentaries.
“Animation was something I knew could say a lot, because of the medium,” she says. “So I present really strong themes in the trilogy that I created, so that [it] could bypass the censorship board and still entertain, still empower.”
Animation was a new medium for the documentary filmmaker who had never studied film.
“I learned everything, watching things online, talking to experts. To be honest, that’s how I became a documentary filmmaker,” she confesses. “So for me, going from middle to middle is not a big kind of adjustment, because I never had a formative film education.”
Obaid-Chinoy is best known for her work in documentaries, for which she won two Oscars. First, she won an Oscar, along with director Daniel Junge, for the 2012 short film Saving Face, a film about Pakistani women who have suffered acid attacks.
After she won the Oscar, she says, “everyone was talking about this brunette girl who won an Oscar, and it was really surreal. But what really caught my eye is the fact that you can be anyone and you can come from anywhere, but if you really put in the stories that matter, there will be people who will watch and there will be a kind of celebration of the narrative.”
Then, in 2016, Obaid-Chinoy received his second Oscar for the biographical documentary “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” which tells the story of a poor young woman who was shot, thrown into a river, and narrowly escaped. of an “honor” assassination attempt by his father and uncle in Pakistan.
One billion people watching: a law is passed to stop Pakistan’s honor killings
After “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” was nominated for an Oscar, the filmmaker met with then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ask him to commit to a law to end honor killings in his country. country.
“I told myself that I needed to pass this law. I therefore urged the Prime Minister [to] show the film, which he did, and it was broadcast live on our national television in millions of homes,” she says. “[Then] he made this important speech that said, ‘There is no honor in killing a woman.’
During a tour of Los Angeles for the 2016 Oscars, Obaid-Chinoy announced that Sharif had promised to change the law, which “he subsequently had to do because a billion people were watching,” she notes. “I have always believed that it is extremely important to ask, kick open doors, go out there and never underestimate the power of a determined woman.”
Obaid-Chinoy says his job as a documentary filmmaker is to raise awareness of difficult issues. “Now it also means that every time something happens, instead of being relegated to the back pages of the news, it’s front-page news, people are talking about it, it means there’s this sense of fear of violence against women.” . she claims.
But despite the most recent legal advances, millions of women still experience violence around the world.
“It’s a very unfortunate reality to be a woman in today’s world, where we have no control, no rights over our own bodies,” she laments, but remains hopeful as women unite. “The more women speak up, the more women move forward, the harder it will be to continue to have these levels of violence against women.”
On the set of “Mrs. Marvel,” she shares how she had to apply a little defensiveness of her own even with more women working on this production.
“I think I made it pretty clear in my first week that I’ve made a career out of telling men how they should behave around women,” he says. “I don’t allow men to force me, and I certainly don’t allow them to tell me what to do or not what to do. So even those who tried, tried, were quickly told it wasn’t going to happen.”
The future: between Pakistan and Hollywood
And now that she’s finished her first live-action, scripted production, her plans have expanded. “I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for 20 years this year and will continue to use documentaries as a medium, but I find myself more drawn now, at this point in my life, to telling stories through Hollywood narrative fiction,” she says.
However, she doesn’t plan on abandoning her documentary roots. “I’ll be telling stories that have an underlying kind of theme or a connection, or something that at the layers of the story, you’ll find very meaningful, and that you’ll come out with the movies or TV. series or whatever I create knowing there was a mission behind it.”
Obaid-Chinoy was born in Pakistan. After high school, she came to the United States, where she completed her undergraduate studies at Smith College and graduate studies at Stanford University. So, she shared her life and work between North America and Europe, before moving back to Pakistan in 2008, where she has been working and raising her family ever since.
“I think it’s so important for people like me, who can have one foot in the West and one foot in the East, to invest in the ecosystem for women, so that I can teach them how to film or work in films, and have more women. like me emerging from there”, he says.