Samar Minallah: Challenging the Norms!

Sadiq Saleem on Samar Minallah, a Pakistani documentary filmmaker who won the DVF award this year
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Samar Minallah: Challenging the Norms!
DVF Awards 2015 were held at the United Nations. PHOTO: STYLE

Parallel cinema is a risky venture. As an alternative to the mainstream commercial cinema, it focuses more on the social issues and realism. The sub-continent is filled with visionaries like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray who have taken this ‘parallel cinema’ to different heights. Their movies not only created awareness about the social issues but also gave meaning to the content presented to the moviegoers and since then the term 'Meaningful Cinema' became a buzz.

And then we have ‘Documentary Films’, once known as the step-child of commercial cinema, is now regarded as one of the most respectable medium intended to cover the aspects of reality, mostly harsh. With more and more films and social festivals happening around the world, this extension of the parallel cinema is very well received at different platforms. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a young Pakistani documentary filmmaker, took the world by surprise when she won her first Academy Award for her documentary named Saving Face based on acid victims of Pakistan. Besides Sharmeen, there are many other names who have tried their hands on documentary direction with an aim to give voice to those who have been silenced and challenge the norms of the regressive society that they are part of. 

One such name is Samar Minallah. Samar, a Pakistani documentary filmmaker and a women’s rights activist— was honoured at the sixth Diane von Furstenberg (DVF) Awards recently held at the United Nations Headquarters. Every year, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation recognise and support extraordinary women around the world who, in many ways, can be regarded as ambassadors of change. The event is an annual affair which is attended by high profile state representatives like US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and actresses like Dakota Fanning, Maggie Gyllenhaal and supermodel Naomi Campbell also graced the prestigious ceremony this year.

Samar is the founder of Ethnomedia, an NGO that strives to change the culture of injustice and reaches out to the targeted audiences through film, music, art, and dialogue. Originally from Hazara, Pakistan, she has been actively voicing for the rights of women in the field of education, health and compensation marriages. Her contribution in censuring gender inequality and discrimination in society has made her one of the most influential media personalities from Pakistan’s northwestern province. She believes in using art to promote awareness of unjust practices that haunt the society. One of the evils that she actively raises awareness about is the evil custom of ‘Vanni/Swara’, where a young girl is given in marriage against her will to end an old rivalry or to compensate for a debt.

"Marrying a young girl to appease the enemy can be called nothing short of barbaric no matter how pretty a picture you paint," says Samar. She brought this custom to light through her documentary Swara, A Bridge over Troubled Waters for which she has also won UNICEF Child Rights Award. The same documentary is being used as data in Pakistan’s Supereme Court to support Vanni registered cases. She was also the proud recipient of the Fern Holland Award at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards which honor and celebrate women leaders who are working to strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity and protect human rights around the world. Her other documentaries include Dar Pa Dar: Where the heart lies which captures the struggle of an Afghan refugee women in NW Pakistan, and Kuch Khaab hein Meray documenting the abuse of child servants and child laborers.

Alongwith Samar, human rights activist Melanne Verveer who is the first-ever ambassador-at-large for women’s issues at the US Department of State, former US Representative Gabby Giffords and founder of ‘Women in Business’ Adi Tafuna’I were also honoured with the prestigious award. Each honoree received $50,000 from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation in recognition.

Samar Minallah

"Let us remember, if we have a voice, it is our obligation and privilege to use that voice for those who have none," Verveer said on receiving the award.

These brave women need to be applauded for their invaluable contribution to our society.

Sadiq Saleem, a chartered accountant by profession, is a Dubai-based films and fashion journalist